Consumer Reports' Hospital Quality Ratings Dubious


Who doesn’t know and love Consumer Reports? I personally have used this product to help me make a wide range of purchases, from child-care products to a new automobile. Consumer Reports has enjoyed a relatively unblemished reputation since its inception as an unbiased repository of invaluable information for consumers. This nonprofit advocacy organization advises consumers looking to purchase anything from small, menial items (e.g. blenders and toasters) to large, expensive ones (e.g. computers, lawn mowers, cars). It has been categorizing and publishing large-scale consumer feedback and in-house testing since 1936. According to Wikipedia, Consumer Reports has more than 7 million subscribers and runs a budget in excess of $21 million annually.

Despite all this attention from Consumer Reports and others, online ratings are only used by about 14% of consumers to review hospitals or health-care facilities, and by about 17% of consumers to review physicians or other health-care providers.

One of the reasons for its longstanding success is that it does not appear to have any hidden agenda. It does not have any partiality to a specific company or service, and therefore has maintained its impartial stance during testing and evaluation of any good or service. Its Consumer Reports magazine houses no advertisements in order to maintain its objectivity. Its only agenda is to reflect the interests and opinions of the consumers themselves, and its mission is to provide a “fair, just, and safe marketplace for all consumers and to empower consumers to protect themselves.”1 A perfect agent from which to seek advice.

And as a company, it has grown with the times, as it now hosts a variety of platforms from which consumers can seek advice. It has long hosted a website (ConsumerReports.org). Now it has Consumer Reports Television and The Consumerist blog, the latter of which accepts “tips” from anyone on what stories to cover, helpful tips for consumers, or interesting pictures. For a few years, there was also Consumer Reports WebWatch, which was aimed at improving the credibility of websites through rigorous investigative reporting.

So it seems that Consumer Reports could be a good avenue to seek advice on where to “consume” health care. And, in fact, it is now in the business of rating the health-care industry. Recent blog posts from Consumer Reports have entailed topics as wide-ranging as the number of uninsured in the U.S. to the number and types of recalls of food products.

The health part of the website covers beauty and personal care (sunscreens and anti-wrinkle serums), exercise and fitness (bikes and diet plans), foods (coffee to frozen meals), home medical supplies (heart rate and blood pressure monitors), vitamins, supplements, and, last but not least, health services. This last section rates health insurance, heart surgeons, heart screening tests, and hospitals.

It even goes so far as to “rate” medications; its Best Buy Drugs compares the cost and effectiveness of a variety of prescription drugs ranging from anti-hypertensives to diabetic agents.

In Focus: Hospitals

Consumer Reports’ latest foray into the health-care industry now includes reporting on the quality of hospitals. The current ratings evaluated more than 2,000 acute-care hospitals in the U.S. and came up with several rankings.

The first rating includes “patient outcomes,” which is a conglomerate of hospital-acquired central-line-associated bloodstream infection (CLABSI) rates, select surgical-site-infection [SSI] rates, 30-day readmission rates (for acute MI [AMI], congestive heart failure [CHF], and pneumonia), and eight “Patient Safety Indicators” (derived from definitions from the Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality [AHRQ], and includes pressure ulcers, pneumothorax, CLABSI, accidental puncture injury during surgery, and four postoperative complications, including VTE, sepsis, hip fracture, and wound dehiscence).

It also includes ratings of the patient experience (from a subset of HCAHPS questions) and two measures of hospital practices, including the use of electronic health records (from the American Hospital Association) and the use of “double scans” (simultaneous thoracic and abdominal CT scans).

From all of these ratings, Consumer Reports combined some of the metrics to arrive at a “Safety Score,” which ranges from 0 to 100 (100 being the safest), based on five categories, including infections (CLABSI and SSI), readmission rates (for AMI, CHF, and pneumonia), patient ratings of communication about their medications and about their discharge process, rate of double scans, and avoidance of the aforementioned AHRQ Patient Safety Indicators.

As to how potential patients are supposed to use this information, Consumer Reports gives the following advice to those wanting to know how the ratings can help a patient get better care: “They can help you compare hospitals in your area so you can choose the one that’s best for you. Even if you don’t have a choice of hospitals, our ratings can alert you to particular concerns so you can take steps to prevent problems no matter which hospital you go to. For example, if a hospital scores low in communicating with patients about what to do when they’re discharged, you should ask about discharge planning at the hospital you choose and make sure you know what to do when you leave.”

Overall, the average Safety Score for included hospitals was a 49, with a range from 14 to 74 across the U.S. Teaching hospitals were among the lowest scorers, with two-thirds of them rated below average.

At first blush, the numbers seem humbling, even startling, but it is not clear if they reflect bad care or bad metrics. Consumer Reports, similar to many other rating scales, has glued together a hodge-podge of different metrics and converted them into a summary score that may or may not line up with other organizational ratings (e.g. U.S. News and World Report, Leapfrog Group, Healthgrades, etc). Consumer Reports does acknowledge that none of the information for their rankings is actually collected from Consumer Reports but from other sources, such as the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and the American Hospital Association (AHA).

The Bottom Line

Despite all this attention from Consumer Reports and others, online ratings are only used by about 14% of consumers to review hospitals or health-care facilities and by about 17% of consumers to review physicians or other health-care providers.2 Although the uptick is relatively low for use of online ratings to seek health care, that likely will change as the measurements get better and are more reflective of true care quality.

The bottom line for consumers is: Where do I want to be hospitalized when I get sick, and can I tell at the front end in which aspects a hospital is going to do well?

I think the answer for consumers should be to stay informed, always have an advocate at your side, and never stop asking questions.And for now, relegate Consumer Reports to purchases, not health care.

Dr. Scheurer is a hospitalist and chief quality officer at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston. She is physician editor of The Hospitalist. Email her at scheured@musc.edu.


  1. Consumer Reports. How we rate hospitals. Consumer Reports website. Available at: http://www.consumerreports.org/cro/2012/10/how-we-rate-hospitals/index.htm. Accessed May 12, 2013.
  2. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Peer-to-peer health care. Pew Internet website. Available at: http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2013/Health-online/Part-Two/Section-2.aspx. Accessed May 12, 2013.

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