Navigating Hospital Rating Systems Can Be Difficult for Consumers

In light of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), many consumers have taken a renewed interest in the delivery of healthcare, and are increasingly concerned with the quality of care they receive.1 These concerned consumers have turned to the internet as a resource, as reports that rate hospital and physician performance, as well as hospital and physician rankings based on patient satisfaction, safety, and infection rates, are becoming increasingly popular.2 However, there is a lack of consistency in rating methods between reporting agencies, and, as such, separate reports will often come to different conclusions for a single entity.3 These conflicting reports can make the process of finding a high quality provider more difficult for consumers,4 and potentially decrease hospital and physician patient volume, and therefore revenue.5 An increased awareness of this disparity in ratings methodology will not only help patients, but will also help bolster support for a unified and standardized approach to hospital ratings.

As of March 2014, the individual mandate of the ACA has reduced the national uninsured population by 5.4 million, indicating that the U.S. health insurance system has, and will likely see, a significant increase in patronage.6 With this increased patronage, the ‘patient experience’ will become all the more important, particularly as consumers become more concerned with high quality care and lower prices.7 As reported by United Healthcare in 2012, 40 percent of those surveyed indicated they had spent some time online researching healthcare providers before being treated for a major health-care event,8 but just 14 percent were comparing prices.9 However, consumers are expected to increasingly compare healthcare prices as more advanced technology becomes available, making the search for cost comparisons easier, which enables consumers to take a more active role in their healthcare selections.10

A publication endorsed by the Governor of Massachusetts recommended that patients conduct cost comparisons, as well as consult safety ratings of hospitals, particularly as approximately 440,000 people die, per year, as a result of preventable medical errors.11 The publication endorsed by the Governor recommended that consumers utilize the following safety ratings, which are endorsed by the Leapfrog Group:

  1. “prevent medication errors;
  2. have appropriate Intensive Care Unit (ICU) staffing levels, take steps to avoid harm;
  3. reduce pressure ulcers;
  4. reduce in-hospital injuries;
  5. manage serious errors; and,
  6. reduce intensive care unit infections.”12

There are numerous companies which publish ratings of both hospitals and their providers, with some of the best known being:

  1. The Joint Commission, which accredits and certifies more than 20,500 health care organizations in the U.S.13;
  2. Consumer Reports, which helps consumers “compare hospitals based on patient safety scores, as well as individual measures relating to patient experience, patient outcomes, and certain hospital practices14;
  3. HealthGrades, which describes itself as an “online resource for consumers looking to choose a doctor or hospital based on objective information that can lead to better health;15 and,
  4. The Leapfrog Group, which provides results from voluntary surveys which “assess hospitals on three key areas: how patients fare, resources used in caring for patients, and leadership and structures that promote patient safety.16

While these groups may have similar goals, there are differences in:

  1. the groups’ method of gathering data;
  2. the groups’ reporting methods;
  3. the level of transparency in each groups’ reporting methods; and,
  4. differences among each groups’ rating scales.17 

These differences in rating methods and scales may result in “wildly divergent conclusions, and sometimes provide as much confusion as clarity for consumers.”18 A prominent example of differing ratings results can be seen with the University of California San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center, which has received high marks in the various rating schemes, yet has been fined $425,000 for repeatedly endangering patients.19 Another example is the Saint Francis Hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma which is being penalized by Medicare “for falling short on the government’s quality assessment,” yet is ranked as the 2nd best hospital in Oklahoma by US News, and is a Healthgrades Distinguished Hospital for Clinical Excellence.20 These discrepancies can occur due to:

  1. the utilization of outdated data;
  2. the utilization of results from voluntary responses, rather than direct data points;
  3. the weighing of categories differently, i.e., patient outcomes vs. patient satisfaction;
  4. the utilization of different rating systems, i.e., a letter scale (A-F) vs. Stars vs. numerical; and,
  5. differences between rating systems designed to give performance data, and those focused on awards and recognition.21

Due to this variance between ratings reports, physicians and hospitals have voiced their concern regarding how to improve the quality of care and address patient concerns, amid the dissemination of conflicting data regarding the hospital or physician weaknesses.22 The Vice President of the Healthcare Association of New York (HANY), an organization which advocates on behalf of all New York hospitals and healthcare systems at the State and Federal level,23 explains that:

“Hospitals take (rating sites) very seriously and use them to figure out how to deliver better care. But unless there is some type of standardized approach with very transparent methodology, it’s going to be very difficult for hospitals to really apply the ratings for the purpose of quality improvement.”24

In response to the concerns of hospitals and physicians, HANY created its “Report on Report Cards” as an “educational resource for hospital leaders and their boards; as a primer for evaluating and responding to publicly available consumer report cards.25 This “Report on Report Cards” aims to assist hospital leaders in understanding what concerns from the ratings reports are the most pressing, and the methods used to assign those hospital ratings and rankings, so that hospital leadership can accurately determine how best to approach any alleged deficiency.26,27 However, in criticism of the “Report on Report Cards”, the ratings groups have argued that HANY has a conflict of interest, as HANY advocates for the hospitals, and HANY was not transparent in the methods used to create the “Report on Report Cards”.28 Furthermore, executives from ratings sites argue that when a hospital receives favorable ratings, the hospital rarely complains about rating system methodologies or transparencies, and instead will use the favorable ratings to bolster the hospital’s reputation.29

The issue of ratings has become important to hospitals and physicians, likely, at least in part, due to a study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), which reported that 35% of consumers utilizing ratings sites to search for doctors selected their practitioner based upon good reviews, while 37% avoided a doctor based upon a bad review.30 As such, physicians and hospitals could suffer significant financial harm if a rating site portrays the provider inaccurately.

There may not be a simple or immediately plausible fix for the many ratings systems available on the internet. However, in the meantime, Dr. Jeff Rice, CEO and Founder of the Healthcare Bluebook, recommends that hospitals take the lead in disclosing quality and cost information in a clear and useful way,31 which could lessen consumer confusion, increase transparency, and ultimately assist the consumer in making a more informed decision in their search for high quality and affordable healthcare. 

"Love it or hate it, Obamacare's spurring interest in the pathology of health care" By Dr. Phillip Caper, Bangor Daily News-Health, January 16, 2014, (Accessed 6/20/14); "Physician Supply and the Affordable Care Act," By Elayne J. Heisler, Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, January 15, 2013,$File/crsdoctor.pdf (Accessed 6/20/14).             

"A Changing Landscape of Physician Quality Reporting: Analysis of Patients' Online Ratings of Their Physicians Over a 5-Year Period" By  Guodong Gordon Gao, PhD, MBA, et. al., Journal of Medical Internet Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, 2012, p. 38-48.

"Experts question hospital raters' methods" By Sabriya Rice, Modern Healthcare, May 31, 2014, (Accessed 6/20/14).

"What, No Wait?" By Marty Stempniak, Health and Health News Magazine, November 2013, p. 30-35.

Ibid; Rice, May 31, 2014.

"Early Estimates Indicate Rapid Increase in Health Insurance Coverage under the ACA: A Promising Start" By Sharon K. Long et al., Health Reform Monitoring Survey-Urban Institute Health Policy Center, April 15, 2014, (Accessed 7/8/14).

"The vulnerable healthcare consumer: an interpretive synthesis of the paitent experience literature" By Caroline Hare et al., International Journal of Consumer Studies, Vol. 37, No. 3 (May 2013), pp. 299-311; Stempniak, November 2013, p. 30-35.

"United Healthcare survey finds that few consumers comparison-shop health-care prices" By Rick Seltzer, Business Journal (Central New York): HealthCare Quarterly, Vol. 26, No.  41 (October 2012) p. 2B.



"To Err Is Human: Building A Safer Health System" Institute of Medicine:Shaping the Future of Health (November 1999), (Accessed 6/30/14); "Stunning News on Preventable Deaths in Hospitals" By Leah Binder, Forbes, September 23, 2013, (Accessed 7/8/14).

"Be Safe- Check Your Hospital's Patient Safety Rating Before an Admission" By the Group Insurance Commission, Posted On Commonwealth of Massachusetts Group Insurance Commission Your Benefits Connection (2012), (Accessed 6/30/14).

"About The Joint Commission" The Joint Commission, 2014, (Accessed 6/30/14).

"How we rate hospitals: Answers to questions about how the hospitals are rated and how you should use the information" Consumer, May 2014, (Accessed 6/30/14).

"The Right Doctor. The Right Hospital. The Right Care." healthgrades, 2014, (Accessed 6/20/14).

"TheLeapfrogGroup" The LeapFrog Group, 2014, (Accessed 6/30/14).

Rice, May 31, 2014.

"Hospital Ratings Are In The Eye Of The Beholder" By Jordan Rau, Kaiser Health News, March 18, 2013, (Accessed 6/20/14).



Rice, May 31, 2014.


"About the Healthcare Association of New York State" Healthcare Association of New York State, 2014, (Accessed 7/8/14).

Rice, May 31, 2014.

"HANYS' Report On Report Cards: Understanding Publicly Reported Hospital Quality Measures" HANYS Quality Institute, October 2013, (accessed June 30, 2014)

Rice, May 31, 2014.

HANYS Quality Institute, October 2013.

Rice, May 31, 2014.


"Public Awareness, Perception, and Use of Online Physician Rating Sites" By David A Hanauer et. al, The Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 311, No. 7, February 19, 2014, p.734-735.

Rice, May 31, 2014.

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