The Costs of Quality Care in Pediatric Hospital Medicine

Dr. Chang

Dr. Chang

“Dr. Chang? Oh my, it’s Dr. Chang! And his little son!” I called them “mall moments.” I would be at the local shopping mall with my father, picking up new clothes for the upcoming school year, when suddenly an elderly woman would approach. My father, despite his inability to remember my own birthday, would warmly grasp the woman’s hands, gaze into her eyes, ask about her family, then reminisce about her late husband and his last days in the hospital. After a few minutes, she would say something like, “Well, your father is the best doctor in Bakersfield, and you’ll be lucky to grow up to be just like him.”

And this would be fine, except the same scene would replay at the supermarket, the dry cleaners, and the local Chinese restaurant (the only place my father would eat out until he discovered the exotic pleasures of sushi). I wondered how my father ever got any errands done, with all his patients chatting with him along the way. Looking back on these “moments,” it is clear to me that this was my father’s measure of quality—his patients loved him. Other doctors loved him. The nurses—well, maybe not so much. He was a doctor’s doctor.

Quality measures? After working in his office, I only knew of two: The waiting room must be empty before the doors are closed and locked, and no patient ever gets turned away, for any reason. By seven o’clock in the evening, these measures got pretty old. But simple credos made him one of the most beloved physicians in Kern County, Calif.

Quality, in whatever form it takes, has a cost, however. My father divorced twice. My own “quality” time with him was spent making weekend rounds at the seemingly innumerable nursing homes around Bakersfield, Calif., although this was great olfactory training for my future career as a hospitalist. Many a parent’s day was spent with only my mother present, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t envy the other children with both parents doting over their science projects.

As we in pediatric hospital medicine (PHM) embark on a journey to define and promote quality in our care of children, we are well aware that adhering to our defined standards of quality will have a cost. What has been discussed less, but is perhaps even more elementary, is the cost of simply endeavoring to define and measure quality itself. This has not slowed down the onslaught of newly defined quality measures in PHM. Quality measures from the adult HM world, such as readmission rates, adherence to national guidelines, and communication with primary care providers, have been extracted and repurposed.

Despite our attempts at controlling costs, most ongoing QI efforts focused on improving clinical quality alone are doomed to fail with regard to providing bottom-line cost reductions.10 QI efforts that focus on decreasing variability in the use of best practices have brought improvements in both outcomes and reduced costs of complications.

Attempts to extrapolate these measures to PHM have been less than successful. Alverson and O’Callaghan recently made a compelling case debunking readmission rates as a valid quality measure in PHM.1 Compliance with Children’s Asthma Care (CAC) measures was not found to decrease asthma-related readmissions or subsequent ED visits in a 2011 study, although a study published in 2012 showed an association between compliance with asthma action plans at discharge and lower readmission rates.2,3 Documentation of primary care follow-up for patients discharged from a free-standing children’s hospital actually increased the readmission rate (if that is believed to be a quality measure).4

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