Threat 2: Quality Stops at Core Measures
It is hard to argue that fulfilling “core measures” is a bad thing. Nonetheless, the core measures were not meant to be quality; instead, they were meant as surrogate measures of quality. The presumption of the core-measures initiative is that the system would exist without direct attention to the core measures, operating as it ordinarily would with generic attention to meeting all standards of quality for all diseases. And at some point in time, the core measures would be assessed to give an overall assessment of the system’s quality.
What has evolved, however, is a concerted attention to meeting the core measures, with little regard to the overall culture of quality.
Let’s say you were tasked with improving the public school system in your state. As a measure of the improvement, you choose five of the 1,000 schools as “core measure” schools. The state board of education is told that the performance of these five sample schools will be assessed at the end of the year, and financial support for the system as a whole will hinge on their performance. The intended result is that attention would be paid to improving the performance of every school in the system, and this improvement would be reflected in the performance of the five sample schools. The board of education could take the route of improving all schools, but the more pragmatic route would be to funnel all resources into these five schools, to the detriment of resources for the other 995 schools. The performance of the core measure schools would dramatically improve, and funding would be secured. But ask yourself: Did the performance of the school system as a whole actually improve?
Such is the risk of the core measures in healthcare. The original intent of the core measures was to instill a culture of QI for all points of care. And this has been a valuable contribution to changing the consciousness of the healthcare system. The presumption was that the core measures would be “seeds,” and that by emphasizing these select measures, the QI culture eventually would spread to all aspects of patient care. But this plan hinged on the presumption that that there is an unlimited amount of mental energy and resources to be devoted to all tasks within healthcare. The reality is that there is a fixed amount of intellectual energy and resources to be devoted to the various aspects of healthcare. One wonders if the overemphasis on meeting the core measures might actually have taken the wind out of the sails for QI in other non-core-measure patient care.
The implications are twofold. By definition, a core measure has to be applicable to all healthcare systems, and with a fixed amount of mental energy and resources, there is a real risk that what portion is reserved for QI finds its way only to the core indicators, especially if they are overemphasized in the system. The second implication is captured in our experience with time to antibiotics. With meeting the core indicator as the priority, many systems instituted the “work-around”: Give antibiotics to every patient presenting to the ED, and you will be sure to have met the four-hour window in the core indicator. The result was an exponential increase in inappropriate antibiotic administration and radiographic tests, all because meeting the indicator became more important than the overall goal.
As stewards of the hospital system, it is upon us to ensure that the original intent of core measures remains secure: The core measures seed a culture of quality, but do not become ends in and of themselves. QI apart from the core measures must remain an equal priority, and it is the hospitalist who will be central in ensuring this comes to fruition.