WMU News

Hospitals need to communicate better

Oct. 5, 2001

By Dr. Jack M. Ruhl

Some time ago, a woman driving the family station wagon was on the lookout for a carwash. She spied a sign that said, "Brushless Carwash." Not knowing exactly what this was, she pulled into the carwash and asked the attendant, "What is a brushless carwash?" His response was, "the kind we have here."

Was the attendant's reply helpful? The woman wanted information that would help her decide whether to have her car washed at the brushless carwash. What did the attendant provide? Totally correct information that was totally useless as input to her decision.

Southwest Michigan consumers trying to purchase health care often face a similar dilemma. Health care providers give us plenty of information on their Web sites and in the form of billboards, ads in local newspapers, direct mail flyers, and television commercials. Unfortunately, most of this information does not help consumers distinguish among best, mediocre and poor-quality health care.

I base this statement on my review of the advertising of several southwest Michigan health care providers, including Bronson Methodist Hospital, Spectrum Health and Borgess Health Alliance. I've compared their offerings with the Web sites and print advertising of several nationally known medical centers, including Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and Loyola Medical Center in the Chicago area. With the exception of Borgess Health Alliance, much of their advertising isn't very helpful to consumers.

Consider the following:

  • Bronson has been running large newspaper ads announcing that AARP has recognized it as one of America's top 15 "Hospitals with Heart."
  • Bronson's television ads and Web site show the lobby of their new facility, complete with potted plants and many windows. A voiceover states that Bronson has a healing environment.
  • Spectrum Health's Web site states that its Butterworth campus has been named one of the Solucient100 Top Cardiovascular hospitals, and that hospitals in this category have mortality rates as much as 27 percent lower than their peers. Spectrum provides no information about their own mortality rates.

How helpful is this information for consumers trying to make a critical decision about where to purchase health care? Not very.

Here are just a few examples of the types of information health care consumers do need to know:

Timeliness -- Consumers should expect high quality care with minimal delay. For example, suppose that a woman has a mammogram. To their credit, Bronson states in a flier that the health system provides 24-hour turnaround on mammograms. Johns Hopkins Breast Care Center actually surveys patients about their satisfaction with the promptness of the physicians as well as the lab, radiology and nursing staffs. Survey results are posted on the Johns Hopkins Web site.

But consumers need even more information about timeliness. For example, if a suspicious lesion appears on the mammogram, how soon can the woman receive a biopsy? Once the biopsy is performed, how soon before she receives the results? In this situation, high quality means giving the patient answers as soon as possible.

Procedure volume -- Researchers writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association have found that hospital procedure volume makes a significant difference in surgical outcome. For example, patients survive longer after their heart surgery when the surgeries are performed in hospitals performing many heart surgeries. The same is true for pancreatectomies, esophagectomies or colon cancer resections. So, if I have colon cancer, I need to know if physicians at Hospital X perform 25 or 250 colorectal surgeries each year.

Patient quality of life after surgery -- If I have surgery at hospital X, will my life return to normal, or nearly so, after my surgery? Consider a surgical procedure called a radical prostatectomy, in which a surgeon removes a man's cancerous prostate. There are two very significant possible postoperative complications: impotence and urinary incontinence, or leakage of urine. Following surgery, many men become impotent and incontinent, and some recover potency and continence. Depending on the hospital and the surgeon, results vary widely. The Web site for Johns Hopkins Brady Urological Institute posts success rates at three, six, 12, and 18 months for potency and incontinence.

Alone among its regional competitors, Borgess Health Alliance is moving in the right direction. Its Web site posts data on length of stay, mortality, and total charges compared with national averages. Web surfers can also read summaries of results of patient satisfaction surveys. This is an encouraging beginning, and perhaps other providers will follow their example.

As Borgess and others have shown, the important information consumers need can be collected and reported on local health care providers' Web sites, where it is easily accessible. Given this information, market forces will lead to higher quality services, which means less human suffering and death. Consumers need the right information when purchasing health care.

Don't give us photos of the hospital lobby or tell us what a big heart you have.

Dr. Jack M. Ruhl is the chairperson of the Department of Accountancy in Western Michigan University's Haworth College of Business. This column was originally published in the Aug. 29 issue of MiBizSouthwest and is reprinted in WMU News with their permission. The article is part of a monthly MiBiz series featuring professors from the WMU Haworth College of Business.

Media contact: Jessica English, 616 387-8400, jessica.english@wmich.edu

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