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Goal 3: Identify Strategies to Improve Access, Foster Appropriate Use, and Reduce Unnecessary Expenditures

AHRQ's third research goal is to support studies of access, health care utilization, and expenditures to identify whether particular approaches to health care delivery and payment alter behaviors in ways that promote access to care and/or more economic use of health care resources. This information is critical because adequate access and appropriate use of health care services continue to be problematic for many Americans, particularly the poor, the uninsured, members of minority groups, rural and inner city residents, and other underserved populations. In addition, changes in the organization and financing of care have raised new questions about access to a range of health services, including emergency and specialty care.

Research on Priority Populations

AHRQ has always taken steps to ensure that the Agency's research emphasizes the needs of priority populations who generally are underserved by the health care system and underrepresented in research. For several years, the Agency has had cross-cut teams to address three priority populations:

These teams work with all of AHRQ's Offices and Centers to ensure that the needs of these populations are addressed in all of the Agency's activities.

In fiscal year 2000, AHRQ began assembling an office dedicated to research on priority populations. These include women, children, minorities, the elderly and aging population, people with disabilities and/or chronic diseases, people who are terminally ill, people living in the inner city, rural residents, and low-income individuals and families. AHRQ is focusing special attention on health care disparities.

Health Care Disparities. Disparities in health have been documented repeatedly over the last few decades across a broad range of medical conditions and affecting many racial and ethnic groups. Differences have been noted in health outcomes such as quality of life and mortality, processes of care such as rates of use of certain services and procedures, quality and appropriateness of care, and the prevalence of various conditions and diseases.

Disparities persist despite improvements in health for the Nation as a whole. Between 1987 and 1995, deaths from ischemic heart disease decreased 20 percent overall for the U.S. population but only 13 percent for blacks.

Minority children and chronically ill elderly minority men and women may be especially vulnerable to many of the inequities that lead to disparities, and they may be unable to adequately safeguard their own health and advocate for themselves. Some recent AHRQ efforts in this area include:

  • In fiscal year 1999, AHRQ announced funding of $8.84 million over 3 years for 12 new research projects to develop measures of quality of care for vulnerable populations, such as people with low literacy and high-risk infants.
  • In fiscal year 2000, AHRQ earmarked nearly $8 million to support projects that address the goals of the President's Initiative to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health.
  • AHRQ funded nine projects under the EXCEED (Excellence Centers to Eliminate Ethnic/Racial Disparities) initiative. These projects address the factors that contribute to ethnic and racial inequities in health care and identify practical tools and strategies to eliminate the disparities.

Minority Health. AHRQ and its predecessor agencies have been involved in research on minority health issues for more than three decades. For example, in the mid-1990s, AHRQ funded 11 MEDTEP (Medical Treatment Effectiveness Program) Research Centers on Minority Populations throughout the Nation. The MEDTEP centers are concentrating on ways to improve medical diagnosis and treatment and disseminate information to help both minority patients and their health care providers. In fiscal year 1999 alone, AHRQ funded 49 grants with a major emphasis on minority health. These grants have a total value of more than $16.8 million.

AHRQ's investments in minority health services research have resulted in numerous findings that are helping to shed light on the disparities experienced by racial and ethnic minorities and expand what is known about the reasons for those disparities. AHRQ's activities in fiscal years 1999-2000 in this area include:

  • A study by researchers at Georgetown University Medical Center to examine the influence of race and sex on physicians' recommendations for cardiac catheterization. They found that black women are less likely than white or black men or white women to be referred for this procedure, which is considered to be the "gold standard" test for diagnosing coronary artery disease. The study involved 720 primary care physicians and eight patient actors (two each white men, white women, black men, and black women).
  • A project to develop methods for risk adjustment for surgical procedures that are performed in otherwise healthy individuals. The project focuses on hysterectomy, which is performed at very high rates in black women, who also have higher complication rates compared with other women.
  • A project that involves focus groups for Chinese and Vietnamese patients to identify health care issues that are important to them and develop and validate patient questionnaires that are sensitive to language and cultural barriers.
  • A project to compare translated and non-translated brochures (developed originally in Spanish) currently being distributed to Spanish-speaking adults in southern Arizona and Northern Mexico. The goal of the project is to develop guidelines for preparing effective written health-related materials in Spanish.

Women's Health. In fiscal year 1999, AHRQ met the critical challenge of obtaining input from a broad community of researchers, clinicians, policymakers, consumers/patients, and advocates to identify priorities for women's health services research. As a result, the Agency developed a new women's health initiative that broadened the program beyond existing research on problems unique to women, such as breast cancer, to fund studies that examine the differences in patterns of care between men and women.

Domestic violence affects millions of women and their families each year. It is the second leading cause of injuries and death among women of childbearing age. Women from all racial and ethnic groups and income levels are victims of domestic violence, and the consequences are seen in a range of medical, obstetric, gynecologic, and mental health problems. Direct health care costs associated with domestic violence are estimated to be $1.8 billion per year.

In fiscal year 1999, AHRQ was approached by a number of advocacy organizations and the Federal Steering Committee on Violence Against Women for assistance in developing a research-based performance standard for health care providers in the area of domestic violence. AHRQ and other HHS agencies worked together to convene a meeting of experts to develop a health services research agenda to address the health aspects of domestic violence.

In fiscal year 2000, AHRQ invested $1 million in research to evaluate health system responses to domestic violence. These longitudinal studies are the first of their kind and will move us beyond studying prevalence, screening, and training to take a rigorous look at health care interventions for domestic violence and their effectiveness. Women will be evaluated over time to identify interventions that improve the health and safety of victims, predict and improve health care use, prevent and reduce the occurrence of domestic violence, and develop better techniques to identify women at risk for domestic violence.

Examples of recent AHRQ-supported research on women's health issues include:

  • A study of hysterectomy in women enrolled in nine managed care organizations in Southern California, which found that about 70 percent of the hysterectomies performed on 497 women in these MCOs between 1993 and 1995 were inappropriate. These cases did not meet the level of care recommended by an expert panel or the criteria for hysterectomy developed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. The most common indications for hysterectomy were benign tumors, pelvic relaxation, and bleeding. The most common reasons for tagging hysterectomy recommendations as inappropriate were inadequate diagnostic evaluation and failure to try alternative treatments before hysterectomy.
  • A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University, which found that physician compassion can substantially reduce anxiety in women who are newly diagnosed with breast cancer. The study involved 123 healthy breast cancer survivors and 87 women who had not had cancer. Half of the women in each group saw a standard videotape of two treatment options for metastatic cancer. The other women saw an enhanced compassion videotape in which the doctor acknowledged the patient's concerns, touched her hand, and generally expressed compassion and support. Anxiety scores were significantly lower among women in the second group.
  • A study to examine the use of unplanned cesarean delivery. Nearly 1 million c-sections are performed in the United States each year, and just over one-fourth of them are done for lack of progress in labor. A recent study by researchers at RAND, Brown University, and UCLA found that each year thousands of these cesareans done for lack of progress in labor may be performed too early. The researchers note that doctors may be more at ease with risks associated with performing a c-section than they are with continuing to observe a labor that is not progressing as rapidly as expected. Or, the doctors may disagree with recommendations developed by ACOG or interpret them differently. This study involved more than 730 women who delivered full-term, nonbreech infants by unplanned c-section in Los Angeles County and Iowa between March 1993 and February 1994.
  • White women are more likely than minority women to receive hormone replacement therapy (HRT), according to this study by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco. The study involved nearly 9,000 women, aged 50 and older, who were seen as outpatients and prescribed HRT. White women were significantly more likely to be given HRT (33 percent) than Asians (21 percent), blacks (25 percent), or Hispanics (23 percent). These findings are particularly troubling for black women who have coronary mortality rates that are more than 30 percent higher than rates among white women.

Children's Health. Improving outcomes, quality, and access to health care for America's 70 million children and adolescents is a critical goal of health services research and central to the mission of AHRQ. Understanding what's needed to improve health care delivery for children and adolescents requires a special research focus.

Because children are growing and developing, their health care needs and resource use differ from adults. Unlike adults, they usually are dependent on others for access to care and determinations about the quality of care they receive. Several AHRQ-funded studies on children's health have shown the importance of experience in caring for children.

AHRQ's work in this area helps to fill the major gap that exists in evidence-based information on the health care needs of children and adolescents. Such information is essential to appropriately guide clinical and policymaking decisions. The need for this information has become particularly critical since the implementation of the State Child Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). In addition to the RFAs funded by AHRQ in fiscal year 1999—Development of Quality of Care Measures for Vulnerable Populations and Health Care Access, Quality, and Insurance for Low-Income Children—other research conducted and sponsored by the Agency is contributing to the evidence base for children's health care decisionmaking.

To address the paucity of quality measures for children, AHRQ is supporting the development, testing, and implementation of the Pediatric Quality of Life measures. Also, AHRQ's CAHPS® children's survey was adopted by the National Committee for Quality Assurance for HEDIS—the first time a health-plan-oriented survey of children was administered nationwide.

In fiscal years 1999-2000, the Agency funded more than 60 projects focused on children's health issues. Examples of findings from recent AHRQ-supported research on children's health include:

  • Researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham found that high-risk infants who are born in hospitals with level-III neonatal intensive care units (NICUs) are 38 percent less likely to die than similar infants born in other hospitals. Level-III NICUs treat a high volume of such infants and thus have more experience in their care. This study examined the effects on neonatal mortality of NICU volume and the level of NICU care available at the hospital of birth for more than 50,000 infants born in California in 1990.
  • Researchers from Johns Hopkins University found better outcomes for children undergoing dialysis when they were treated in facilities experienced in providing this specialized treatment for children. The study involved more than 1,250 children undergoing treatment at outpatient dialysis centers across the country.
  • Referrals to specialists are uncommon among pediatricians, according to the largest study ever conducted of pediatricians' referral patterns. The study involved office visits to 142 pediatricians in 94 practices across 36 States. The pediatricians in this study referred only 1 of every 40 patients seen during office visits. Unexpectedly, the researchers found that gatekeeping arrangements nearly doubled the odds of referral.
  • More than one-third of U.S. children from both urban and rural communities lacked the immunizations recommended for their ages in the early 1990s, according to this study from the University of Colorado. Low income, low family education, minority race, parental unemployment, and female sex were associated with under-immunization. This was true even in States that purchased and distributed vaccines for all children to reduce cost and improve access to immunization.

Medical Expenditure Panel Survey

AHRQ's Medical Expenditure Panel Survey (MEPS) provides highly detailed information on how Americans use and pay for health care. This ongoing survey of about 10,000 households each year provides estimates for the country as a whole and for important priority populations. One of the principal products of the survey is a rich, research database that can be used by researchers at AHRQ and elsewhere to examine a wide range of questions on access to health care, cost and use of health care, and insurance coverage. During fiscal year 2000, supplements and innovations to the data collection expanded MEPS to include the collection of information on health status and health care quality.

Databases. MEPS produces a number of analytical databases and, consistent with privacy policy, releases a number databases to the public. These databases include demographic, health care use, access, expense, and insurance coverage information for all survey participants. Additional files detailing conditions, the specific content of health care events, and employment of household respondents also are made available to the public.

Printed data. In addition to providing databases for research use, AHRQ publishes MEPS data in tabular form on a range of topics. Each year, AHRQ releases hundreds of tables on the health insurance coverage offered by employers. These tables are derived from the MEPS Insurance Component. The data are available for the Nation as a whole, for important economic sectors, and for many States. The MEPS staff also produce findings, summaries/highlights, and methodology reports. Chartbooks, which translate statistical information into graphic form, expand access to information from this important database. In fiscal year 1999, the MEPS staff published a book that discusses methodological and policy issues related to two decades worth of AHRQ-sponsored medical expenditure surveys.

Web site. To maximize the use of this important investment, AHRQ has developed a Web site specific to the MEPS. This Web site rapidly disseminates databases and other products to the research community and quickly responds to inquiries from MEPS data users. By the end of fiscal year 2000, AHRQ was responding to more than 100 inquiries made through the Web site each month. We anticipate high growth, and future plans include the development of sophisticated, online tools so customers without statistical programming skills can produce tabular data. Select to review these exciting features online.

Training. To develop a cadre of sophisticated MEPS users outside of AHRQ, the Agency has developed a series of workshops, which range in length from a few hours to several days. They provide orientation to the policymaker and researcher about the range of questions that MEPS can answer and how the data can be properly used. The longer workshops, which are geared to the trained health services researcher, provide a "hands on component" during which participants actually have the opportunity to begin constructing their own research file with technical assistance from AHRQ staff.

Data Center. The Center for Cost and Financing Studies operates a Data Center through which researchers and others with approved projects can be allowed access to data that do not meet standards for public release. Researchers with approved projects are given access to those data elements required to complete their projects, and micro-data files are not released. Summary data are released subject to review and approval by AHRQ staff to ensure data confidentiality.

Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project

Scientifically sound, standardized databases at the national, regional, and State levels and tools for using them are needed to inform decisionmaking. The Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project is designed to fill this niche. HCUP is a Federal-State-industry partnership to build a standardized, multi-State health data system and companion set of complementary resources. HCUP databases are a family of longitudinal, administrative databases including State-specific hospital-discharge databases, State-specific ambulatory surgery databases, and a national sample of discharges from community hospitals. AHRQ maintains HCUP and has taken the lead in making the databases publicly available and in developing Web-based products and software tools.

HCUP databases serve a unique function and are being tapped by analysts and researchers interested in hospital use, access, charges, quality, and outcomes. Researchers rely on HCUP data to identify, track, analyze, and compare trends at the national, regional, and State levels. Because of their large size, the HCUP databases are used to describe patterns of care for both rare and common diseases, analyze infrequent and frequent hospital procedures, and track use for population subgroups, such as minorities, children, women, and the uninsured.

HCUP databases contain a core set of clinical and nonclinical information on all patients, regardless of payer—including those covered by Medicare, Medicaid, or private insurance and the uninsured—translated into a uniform format to facilitate multi-State and National-State comparisons and analyses. HCUP data include over 100 variables, such as principal and secondary diagnoses and procedures, admission and discharge status, patient demographics, expected payment source, total charges, length of stay, hospital characteristics, and hospital and county identifiers that permit linkages to other databases.

HCUP data users must agree to certain conditions: the database can be used only for research, analysis, and statistical reporting; attempts to identify individuals are prohibited; and institutions cannot be identified, either directly or indirectly, in publications and other materials.

State Inpatient Databases (SID). Individual data sets from 25 participating States make up the 1999 SID. Each data set contains the universe of that State's non-Federal hospital discharge abstracts. All together, the SID represent less than 70 percent of all U.S. hospital discharges, totaling over 25 million inpatient discharge abstracts. State participation is growing; the 2000 SID will include 29 states. The SID are particularly well-suited for policy inquiries unique to a specific State, studies comparing two or more States, market area research, and small area variation analyses. Currently, data are available for 1995-1999.

State Ambulatory Surgery Databases (SASD). The SASD include data sets from 13 States. As of fiscal year 2000, 1997 data were available; 1999 data will be released in fiscal year 2001. The SASD capture data on surgeries performed on the same day in which patients are admitted and released from hospital-affiliated ambulatory surgery sites. Some SASD contain records from freestanding surgery centers as well.

The SASD are well suited for research that requires complete enumeration of hospital-based ambulatory surgeries within market areas or States. Analysts and researchers use the SASD to compare inpatient and outpatient ambulatory surgery patterns, conduct market area research or small area variation analyses, or identify State-specific trends in ambulatory surgery use, access, charges, and outcomes.

The State Ambulatory Surgery Databases (SASD) Hawkare a set of databases, from data organizations in 13 participating States, that capture surgeries performed on the same day in which patients are admitted and released. Currently, SASD data are available for the years 1997-99.

Nationwide Inpatient Sample (NIS). The NIS is a stratified probability sample of hospitals drawn from the SID. The NIS is designed to approximate a 20-percent sample of U.S. community hospitals. Currently, the NIS includes 1988-1999 data. The 1999 NIS provides information on about 7 million inpatient discharges from about 1,000 hospitals. It is the largest all-payer inpatient database in the United States. The NIS is ideal for research that requires a large sample size and for developing national estimates, analyzing national trends, and providing benchmark statistics that can be compared with regional and State statistics.

Kid's Inpatient Database (KID). The KID is a unique database of hospital inpatient stays for children 18 years of age and younger. The KID was specifically designed to permit researchers to study abroad range of conditions and procedures related to child health issues. KID data is available for the year 1997, with a second release planned incorporating year 2000 data.

Web-based HCUPnet. HCUPnet is an interactive, Web-based service developed by AHRQ in fiscal year 1999 for Federal and State policymakers, health plan executives, and others who need to identify, analyze, and compare hospital inpatient statistics at the national, regional, and State levels. HCUPnet provides inpatient data from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample and, as of fiscal year 2000, 10 individual HCUP State Inpatient Databases (SID). HCUPnet's menu-driven format permits users to tailor their online queries about inpatient hospital care. Currently, 1997 data are available. Most questions can be answered in 5 seconds or less.

Users can request information related to specific conditions, disease groups, or procedures, such as length of stay, total charges, discharge status, and/or in-hospital deaths. HCUPnet users can refine their queries by selecting categories, such as patient insurance status, age, sex, or hospital characteristics (e.g., teaching status or type of ownership).

A listing of publications that have utilized HCUP data is available.

The following HCUP fact books and research notes are available from the AHRQ Clearinghouse (call 800-358-9295):

HIV Resource Utilization Data Coordinating Center. The HIV Research Network is a network of providers who pool data and collaborate on research to:

  • Provide policymakers and investigators with timely information about access to and cost, quality, and safety of HIV care.
  • Share information and best practices within the network.

The network is sponsored by AHRQ, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Office of AIDS Research at NIH, and the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation.

Markets and Managed Care Research

AHRQ has taken the lead in supporting and conducting research on health care markets and changing organizational structures. The Agency also has been a leader in developing and maintaining databases and tools that enable decisionmakers to understand how changes in market dynamics or delivery system variables are likely to affect outcomes, quality, access, cost, and use of health care. Following are some examples of recent AHRQ-supported research on markets and managed care.

  • A 1999 study by researchers at Georgetown University looked at whether HMO penetration affects physician earnings. They found that HMOs did reduce physicians' annual and per hour earnings in 1990, presumably through a combination of fewer visits and lower payment rates for people covered by HMOs. According to the researchers, these results may be somewhat conservative because they reflect market behavior prior to the rapid growth and more aggressive market behavior of HMOs in recent years.
  • A 1997 study examined the effects of physicians' personal financial incentives and other measure of involvement with HMOs on three measures of satisfaction and practice style: overall practice satisfaction, the extent to which prior expectations about professional autonomy and the ability to practice good-quality medicine are met, and several specific measures of practice style. The researchers conducted a telephone survey of more than 1,500 physicians. About 15 percent of respondents reported a moderate or strong incentive to reduce services; 70 percent reported a neutral incentive; and 15 percent reported an incentive to increase services. Compared with physicians who had a neutral incentive, physicians with an incentive to reduce services were 1.5 to 3.5 times more likely to be very dissatisfied with their practices. The researchers concluded that although financial incentives to reduce services are not widespread, there is a legitimate reason to be concerned about possible adverse effects on the quality of care.
  • In recent years, most health care markets in the United States have experienced rapid penetration by HMOs and preferred provider organizations (PPOs). During the same period, growth in health care costs has slowed. The researchers used a national database to examine the relationship between price competition and hospital cost growth in the early 1990s. They found that between 1989 and 1994, HMOs and PPOs significantly restrained cost growth among hospitals located in competitive hospital markets. This did not hold true, however, for hospitals located in relatively concentrated markets. The researchers concluded that HMOs have contained cost growth more effectively than PPOs.
  • An analysis of data from a 1993 survey of nearly 1,500 hospitals revealed that the relationship between managed care and physician and clinical integration is relatively modest. The goal was to empirically estimate the effects that managed care has on physician and clinical integration in urban hospitals. Other things being equal, physician involvement in hospital management and governance increase with managed care involvement. To a lesser degree, the use of physician organization arrangements and other similar ventures also increase. In this study, practice management and support services were lower in hospitals with high managed care activity. Larger hospitals, investor-owned, system, and nonteaching hospitals had larger managed care revenues, while revenues from managed care were lower in more concentrated hospital markets.
  • Two trends—managed care and physician-hospital integration—have been prominent in reshaping insurance and provider markets over the last decade. An assessment of the impact of HMO market structure on the formation of physician-hospital strategic alliances in the mid-1990s suggests that hospitals form alliances with physicians for several reasons. Alliances serve to contract with the growing number of HMOs, they pose a countervailing bargaining force of providers in the face of HMO consolidation, and they accompany hospital downsizing and restructuring efforts.
  • AHRQ research has shown that Medicaid managed care enrollment is progressing more slowly in rural areas of the country, while growing rapidly in the rest of the country. Medicaid enrollees in only slightly more than half of the rural counties in the United States were covered by some type of managed care in early 1997, compared with nearly three-fourths of those in urban counties. Also, there are important differences in rural and urban areas in the types of managed care programs. According to this study, mandatory fully capitated programs are less common in rural counties than in urban ones (10 percent versus 23 percent), although seven States do have State-wide mandatory fully capitated Medicaid programs. And finally, programs that combine different types of managed care are less common in rural counties.

User Liaison Program

AHRQ's User Liaison Program (ULP) synthesizes and distributes research findings to local, State, and Federal policymakers so they can use it to make evidence-based decisions about health care. ULP holds small workshops to provide information to policymakers on the critical issues confronting them in today's changing health care marketplace. These workshops are user-driven and user-designed. ULP solicits input from legislators, executive agency staff, and local officials on policy issues where they need information and technical assistance.

In fiscal year 1999, ULP held 17 workshops attended by 843 health care policymakers from 48 States, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, Micro Polynesian Islands, and Guam. Twelve of these were national workshops attended by policymakers from around the country, and five workshops were held for specific audiences. ULP held another 17 workshops in fiscal year 2000 that provided training for 635 attendees from 50 States and the District of Columbia.

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Future Directions

AHRQ's fiscal year 2001 budget of $269.9 million will allow us to expand the Agency's investment in health services research to devote more attention to developing the much-needed evidence-based information that will provide the foundation for health care decisions well into the new century. In addition, the reauthorization legislation passed in fiscal year 2000 affirmed the Agency's core mission and gave us a new charge to improve the quality of health care services provided in the Nation.

We will do this by building on the foundation already laid by AHRQ for promoting evidence-based practice, stepping up research on medical errors and other patient safety issues, translating research into tools and strategies to improve the quality of health care services, and developing the information needed to answer questions about access to health care and its cost and use.

As this report goes to press, we have already begun to address these new challenges. For example, much of AHRQ's increased focus on patient safety and medical errors will be concentrated in the Agency's Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety. To more appropriately reflect this expanded mission, the Center has been renamed as the Center for Quality Improvement and Patient Safety. Congress has instructed AHRQ to devote $50 million in fiscal year 2001 to find ways to improve patient safety. We have been instructed to:

  1. Establish a competitive demonstration program for health care facilities and organizations to test best practices for reducing errors.
  2. Determine ways to improve provider training in order to reduce errors.
  3. Develop guidelines on the collection of uniform data related to patient safety.

Congress designated $10 million of AHRQ's fiscal year 2001 budget for research on the relationship between the health care workplace and its impact on medical errors and the quality of care provided to patients. AHRQ's Center for Primary Care Research will coordinate agency-sponsored research in this area. Potential research topics include the impact of extended work hours for registered nurses on patient safety, the effects of restructuring the health care workplace to reduce costs on the health of workers and the quality of their lives, the assignment of work to health care workers (e.g., new approaches to work shifts and working hours), and improvements in health care working conditions that could be undertaken by employers to improve patient safety.

Fiscal year 1999 and fiscal year 2000 were very productive years for the agency. We will continue our investment in health services research, which will provide the evidence-based information and tools needed to enhance health care decisionmaking in years to come. We expect that the end result of AHRQ's research will be quantifiable improvements in health care in America that will be measured in improved quality of life and patient outcomes, deaths averted, and dollars saved.

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AHRQ Publication No. 01-0018
Current as of March 2001


The information on this page is archived and provided for reference purposes only.


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