Heart of the Matter

Medical quality beats patient comfort



A good way to survive an acute myocardial infarction is to go to the best hospital.

Some patients seem to have found out where those are. For those of us who want to know where to go and what to look for, a recent analysis of 800,000 Medicare patients admitted with acute myocardial infarction (AMI) and heart failure in 10,000 hospitals between 2008 and 2009 provides some reassuring news (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 21603). Its findings indicated that in an era when health care choice is seemingly influenced by testimonial TV ads and the creation of hospitals that look like hotels, technical medical quality outranks all the glitz and bricks. Quality was measured by hospital mortality, 30-day readmissions, adherence to well-established guidelines, and patient satisfaction questionnaires. The investigators measured the effect that medical quality and the “comfort quotient” had on the growth of hospital patient volume through the emergency departments and interhospital referrals.

Dr. Sidney Goldstein

Dr. Sidney Goldstein

Hospital admissions increased in hospitals with the highest-quality performance. Over the 2-year period, the hospitals with the highest-quality performance had increases in hospital volume. Hospitals with a 1% improvement in the adjusted AMI mortality had a 17% increase in market share and a 1.5 % growth rate.

The authors estimated that patients with an AMI (or their family) were willing to travel an additional 1.8 miles for an ED admission to a hospital with a higher survival rate, and 34 miles further for a transfer to a hospital with a higher survival rate. When patients had the option to choose a hospital to be transferred to for further care, quality of care measures had an even greater impact on choice. Postdischarge evaluation of patient satisfaction had little or no effect on growth.

Patients admitted through the ED have the least chance for hospital choice, but even in these patients knowledge about quality influenced the choice of the hospital and the long-term hospital growth rate. Considering the fact that there is scant information available either to patients or even doctors about quality measures, there appears to be a choice process either by patient family, doctor, or ambulance driver to direct patients to the hospital with the best survival rate.

How they made those decisions is not clear. Comparative hospital survival data are rarely transmitted to staff physicians and are not widely available to the public. I have never seen any data like these in the multitude of hospital TV ads, yet somehow those numbers, real or perceived, affected admission and transfer. Maybe it’s just reputation; we all know about that. If you are really interested, you can find hospital medical quality and patient experience data at Medicare’s Hospital Compare site.

All this is good. Medical quality wins. Other studies, however, suggest that usually the “comfort quotient” and measures of medical quality are more closely linked. It has also been suggested that volume is the driving force for the improvement in both quality measures by providing the resources and logistics for better care. Whatever the mechanism, it seems that high-quality medical care is not a bad way to choose which neighborhood hospital to go to in order to survive an AMI.

Dr. Goldstein, medical editor of Cardiology News, is professor of medicine at Wayne State University and division head emeritus of cardiovascular medicine at Henry Ford Hospital, both in Detroit. He is on data safety monitoring committees for the National Institutes of Health and several pharmaceutical companies.

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