Hospitals today bombard their media markets with announcements of its accreditations, awards, and honors. This reflects the economic reality that hospitals, like any other business, have to compete for their customers. Some of these awards are legitimate, while others are pure sales fluff. There are so many awards that even the most knowledgeable healthcare consumer can be easily misled. Nevertheless, our highways, the internet, television and radio airwaves are flooded with billboards, public service announcements, and advertisements designed to lead the consumer into believing that each hospital provides better care than its competitors. How can any ordinary healthcare consumer know which hospital is best for them or a loved one, and which is not?
An alarming example of this deception was revealed by a CNN investigation of the pediatric heart surgery program at St. Mary’s Medical Center in West Palm Beach, Florida. Even though the hospital had received numerous accolades which it prominently advertised, the investigation uncovered an excessively high death rate of babies undergoing heart surgery at the hospital – three times the national average. The hospital responded that infant mortality at the hospital is in line with the national average, but has refused to disclose any information to support their claim. [Update: since this article was first written, St. Mary’s has suspended all pediatric heart surgeries.]
Healthcare consumers can further be misled about hospital safety by the way lawsuits against hospitals are settled. Hospitals hide their errors by insisting that any settlement agreement include strict confidentiality clauses which prevent the patient or their families from telling anyone about the malpractice – hospitals will even pay more money just to keep the details of the malpractice from being revealed to the public. This practice prevents most consumers from learning which services a hospital performs poorly.
Families should not have to first learn of a hospital’s weaknesses through the death or catastrophic injury of a loved one. While some efforts to force hospitals to be more transparent have been initiated, and are to be commended, there is still much more that can be done. For instance, in the product liability arena, the Florida legislature has passed a law prohibiting the enforceability of confidentiality agreements, recognizing that the public’s right to know about dangerous products vastly exceeds any benefit that can be gained by keeping the settlement confidential. Can any good faith argument be made that this reasoning should not also apply to catastrophic medical errors?
Until this deception is outlawed, consumers should not make healthcare decisions solely on the basis of slick advertisements. Instead, decisions regarding health care providers should be based on extensive personal research, which includes, at a minimum, talking with friends, relatives, and former patients.
Here are a couple of websites that evaluate hospital safety.
Hospital Safety Score
The Leap Frog Group