What is Quality in Health Care? (Part 1 of 2)

Assessing the quality of medical care is one of the biggest analytical challenges in health today. Every patient expects–and deserves–treatment that meets the highest standards. Moreover, it is hard to find an aspect of health care reform that does not depend on accurate quality measurement. Without a firm basis for assessing quality, how can the government pay Accountable Care Organizations properly? How can consumer choice (the great hope of many reformers) become viable? How can hospitals and larger bodies of researchers become “learning health systems” and implement continuous improvement?

Ensuring quality, of course, is crucial in a fee-for-value system to ensure that physicians don’t cut costs just by withholding necessary care. But a lot of people worry that quality-based reimbursement plans won’t work. As this article will show, determining what works and who is performing well are daunting tasks.

A recent op-ed claims that quality measures are adding unacceptable stress to doctors, that the metrics don’t make a difference to ultimate outcomes, that the variability of individual patients can’t be reflected in the measures, that the assessments don’t take external factors adequately into account, and that the essential element of quality is unmeasurable.

Precision medicine may eventually allow us to tailor treatments to individual patients with unique genetic prints. But in the meantime, we’re guessing a lot of the time we prescribe drugs.

The term quality originally just distinguished things of different kinds, like the Latin word qualis from which it is derived. So there are innumerable different qualities (as in “The quality of mercy is not strained”). It took a while for quality to be seen as a single continuum, as in an NIH book I’ll cite later, which reduces all quality measures to a single number by weighting different measures and combining them. Given the lack of precision in individual measures and the subjective definitions of quality, it may be a fool’s quest to seek a single definition of quality in health care.

Many qualities in play
Some of the ways to measure quality and outcomes include:

  • Longitudinal research: this tracks a group of patients over many years, like the famous Framingham Heart Study that changed medical care. Modern “big data” research carries on this tradition, using data about patients in the field to supplement or validate conventional clinical research. In theory, direct measurement is the most reliable source of data about what works in public health and treatment. Obvious drawbacks include:

    • the time such studies take to produce reliable results

    • the large numbers of participants needed (although technology makes it more feasible to contact and monitor subjects)

    • the risk that unknown variations in populations will produce invalid results

    • inaccuracies introduced by the devices used to gather patient information

  • Standard of care: this is rooted in clinical research, which in turn tries to ensure rigor through double-blind randomized trials. Clinical trials, although the gold standard in research, are hampered by numerous problems of their own, which I have explored in another article. Reproducibility is currently being challenged in health care, as in many other areas of science.

  • Patient ratings: these are among the least meaningful quality indicators, as I recently explored. Patients can offer valuable insights into doctor/patient interactions and other subjective elements of their experience moving through the health care system–insights to which I paid homage in another article–but they can’t dissect the elements of quality care that went into producing their particular outcome, which in any case may require months or years to find out. Although the patient’s experience determines her perception of quality, it does not necessarily reflect the overall quality of care. The most dangerous aspect of patient ratings, as Health IT business consultant Janice McCallum points out, comes when patients’ views of quality depart from best practices. Many patients are looking for a quick fix, whether through pain-killers, antibiotics, or psychotropic medications, when other interventions are called for on the basis of both cost and outcome. So the popularity of ratings among patients just underscores how little we actually know about clinical quality.

Quality measures by organizations such as the American College of Medical Quality (ACMQ) and National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA) depend on a combination of the factors just listed. I’ll look more closely at these in the next part of this article.

About the author

Andy Oram

Andy Oram

Andy Oram writes and edits documents about many aspects of computing, ranging in size from blog postings to full-length books. Topics cover a wide range of computer technologies: data science and machine learning, programming languages, Web performance, Internet of Things, databases, free and open source software, and more. My editorial output at O'Reilly Media included the first books ever published commercially in the United States on Linux, the 2001 title Peer-to-Peer (frequently cited in connection with those technologies), and the 2007 title Beautiful Code. He is a regular correspondent on health IT and health policy for HealthcareScene.com. He also contributes to other publications about policy issues related to the Internet and about trends affecting technical innovation and its effects on society. Print publications where his work has appeared include The Economist, Communications of the ACM, Copyright World, the Journal of Information Technology & Politics, Vanguardia Dossier, and Internet Law and Business.

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