A Guide to Quality Health Care – How to know it when you see it

Information from the US Dept. of Health and Human Services – Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality

You Deserve Quality Health Care

Getting quality health care can help you stay healthy and recover faster when you become sick. However, we know that often people do not get high-quality care. A 2004 study of 12 large U.S. communities found that just over half (54.9 percent) of people were receiving the care they needed.

What exactly is health care quality? We know that quality means different things to different people. Some people think that getting quality health care means seeing the doctor right away, being treated courteously by the doctor’s staff, or having the doctor spend a lot of time with them.

While these things are important to all of us, clinical quality of care is even more important. Think of it like this: getting quality health care is like taking your car to a mechanic. The people in the shop can be friendly and listen to your complaints, but the most important thing is whether they fix the problem with your car.

Health care providers, the government, and many other groups are working hard to improve health care quality. You also have a role to play to make sure you and your family members receive the best quality care possible.

Be Active: Take Charge of Your Health Care

The single, most important thing you can do to ensure you get high-quality health care is to find and use health information and take an active role in making decisions about your care.

Here are some steps you can take to improve your care:

>Work together with your doctor and other members of the health care team to make decisions about your care.

>Be sure to ask questions.

>Ask your doctor what the scientific evidence has to say about your condition.

>Do your homework; go online or to the library to find out more information about your condition.

>Find and use quality information in making health care choices. Be sure the information comes from a reliable source.

Talking with Your Doctor

Here are some examples of questions to ask your doctor. It is not a complete list. You will probably have many other questions. You should keep asking questions until you understand what is wrong with you and what you need to do to get better.

Understand your diagnosis:

>What is wrong with me?

>What do I need to do to get better?

>Where can I get more information about my condition?

If you need a lab test, an x-ray, or another kind of test, ask your doctor:

>How will the test be done?

>How accurate will the results be?

>What are the benefits and risks of the test?

>When and how will I receive the results?

>What should I do if I don’t receive the results?

If you receive a prescription for a new medicine:

>What is the name of the medicine?

>What is it supposed to do?

>When should I take the medicine, and how much should I take?

>Does the medicine have any side effects?

If you need surgery:

>What kind of operation do I need?

>Why do I need an operation?

>What are the benefits and risks of the operation?

>How long will it take to recover?

>What will happen if I don’t have the operation?

>Are there any other treatments I could have instead of an operation?

>Where can I get a second opinion?

Understanding Health Care Quality

Research has shown that science-based measures can be used to assess quality for various conditions and for specific types of care. For example, quality health care is:

>Doing the right thing (getting the health care services you need).

>At the right time (when you need them).

>In the right way (using the appropriate test or procedure).

>To achieve the best possible results.

Providing quality health care also means striking the right balance of services by:

>Avoiding underuse (for example, not screening a person for high blood pressure).

>Avoiding overuse (for example, performing tests that a patient doesn’t need).

>Eliminating misuse (for example, providing medications that may have dangerous interactions).

We would like to think that every doctor, nurse, pharmacist, hospital, and other provider gives high-quality care, but we know this is not always the case. Quality varies depending on where you live. Quality can vary from one State to another, and it can vary from one doctor’s office across the street to another. Health care quality varies widely and for many reasons.

For example, timely receipt of clot-busting drugs can save lives for patients suffering heart attacks. The national standard for providing clot-busting drugs is within 30 minutes of a patient’s arrival at the hospital. But we know that this varies widely across States, from a low of 20 minutes in one State to a high of 140 minutes in another.

Efforts to Improve Health Care Quality

Improving health care quality is a team effort, and it is ongoing on many levels. To succeed, every part of the health care system must become involved, including government and nongovernment organizations, doctors, nurses, pharmacists, hospitals, other providers, and you, the patient.

One way to assess and track quality of care is by using measures that are based on the latest scientific evidence. A health care measure clearly defines which health care services should be provided to patients who have or are at risk for certain conditions. Measures also set standards for screening, immunizations, and other preventive care.

There are two types of measures: clinical measures and consumer ratings.

Because measures are intended to set general standards for a broad population, they may or may not apply to you. Always check with your doctor about your level of risk for a particular condition and which types of screening and tests you should have.

Finding Quality Information

Today, you can find a great deal of information about health care quality, both online and in print. New tools and resources for assessing and improving health care quality are being developed and will be available soon.

Meanwhile, here is a brief look at what is available now.

Report Cards

Reports cards and other quality reports include consumer ratings, clinical performance measures, or both. They can help you select the right treatment and the right health care provider based on what is most important to you. You may be able to get quality reports from:

>Your employer: Ask your personnel office for information on health plans.

>Health plans: Ask the plan’s customer service office about quality reports.

>Other health care providers: Hospitals, nursing homes, and community health clinics may have quality reports.

>Several government agencies publish quality reports and other types of quality information.

For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a quality tool that helps you compare the care provided by hospitals in your area. This tool is available online at http://www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov.

Another Web site (http://www.medicare.gov/NHCompare/home.asp) provided by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services has detailed information on the past performance of every Medicare- and Medicaid-certified nursing home in the country.


Accreditation is another indicator that can be used to judge quality. Accreditation is a “seal of approval” given by a private, independent group. Health care organizations—such as hospitals—must meet national standards, including clinical performance measures, in order to be accredited.

Accreditation reports present quality information on hospitals, nursing homes, and other health care facilities. For example, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) prepares a performance report on each hospital that it surveys.

Another group, the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA), rates health plans like HMOs. NCQA’s Health Plan Report Card presents accreditation results for hundreds of health plans across the country. Select for Web addresses and basic information on JCAHO, NCQA, and other organizations.

If you need help in finding quality reports, accreditation reports, or other types of quality information, check with your local library or your local or State health department. You can find your State health department listed in the blue pages of your phone book.

Consumer Ratings

Consumer ratings tell you what other people like you think about their health care. Some consumer ratings focus on health plans. For example, a survey called CAHPS® asks people about the quality of care in their own health plans. Their answers can help you decide whether you want to join one of those plans.

Choosing Quality Health Care

Here are some tips for making quality a key factor in the health care decisions you make about health plans, doctors, treatments, hospitals, and long-term care.

Look for a health plan that:

>Has been given high ratings by its members on the things that are important to you.

>Has the doctors and hospitals you want or need.

>Provides the benefits (covered services) you need.

>Provides services where and when you need them.

>Has a documented history of doing a good job of preventing and treating illness.

Look for a doctor who:

>Has received high ratings for quality of care.

>Has the training and experience to meet your needs.

>Will work with you to make decisions about your health care.

If you become ill, make sure you understand:

>Your diagnosis.

>How soon you need to be treated.

>Your treatment choices, including the benefits and risks of each treatment.

>How much experience your doctor has in treating your condition.

Look for a hospital that:

>Is accredited by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO).

>Is rated highly by the State and by consumer groups or other organizations.

>Has a lot of experience and success in treating your condition.

>Monitors quality of care and works to improve quality.

In choosing a nursing home or other long-term care facility, look for one that:

>Has been found by State agencies and other groups to provide quality care.

>Provides a level of care, including staff and services, that will meet your needs.

Moving Forward with Quality Improvement

The National Healthcare Quality Report and the National Healthcare Disparities Report present important information about the state of health care in America. These reports indicate that:

>Quality is improving in many areas, but change takes time.

>The gap between the best possible care and actual care remains large.

>Quality of care varies widely across the country.

>Continuing improvement in health care is possible.

People like you have an important role to play in health care quality improvement. You can use the measures described in this article as a yardstick to assess the quality of care provided to you and your family members.

In addition, many public and private groups are working to improve health care quality measures and other quality tools. The goal is to make these measures and tools reliable, uniform, and helpful to consumers and patients in making health care choices.

Click Here for a resource list to find out how you can get more information about health care quality and what you can do to ensure you get the best quality care possible.

Using Measures to Evaluate Care

Health care measures help us to determine whether services are being provided appropriately and at the right time.

For example, we know that:

>It is important to check whether a person’s blood pressure is high because high blood pressure can lead to heart disease.

>A patient who is admitted to the hospital with a heart attack should be given aspirin and a betablocker.

Clinical performance measures and consumer ratings are the two main types of quality measures. These measures are used to check up on and improve the quality of health care provided by doctors, hospitals, and other providers, including nursing homes, community clinics, and health plans.

Most measures described here are from the National Healthcare Quality Report. Both that report and the National Healthcare Disparities Report are published annually by AHRQ. Those reports and print copies of Guide to Health Care Quality—How to Know It When You See It are available from the AHRQ Publications Clearinghouse (phone: 1-800-358-9295; E-mail AHRQPubs@ahrq.hhs.gov).


2 thoughts on “A Guide to Quality Health Care – How to know it when you see it

  1. Thanks for sharing this important information on how to find quality health care with the readers of Take Charge of Your Health Care Carnival.

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