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Improving Consumer Choice

Research in Action

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Americans are demanding greater value and quality in their health care. But to achieve these goals in today's rapidly changing health care environment, consumers need solid, reliable information to help them:

  • Choose among health care plans, practitioners, and facilities.
  • Participate more actively in their personal health care decisions (treatments).


AHCPR plays a unique role in helping to provide the information consumers need and want. Following are examples of AHCPR-sponsored research, demonstration projects, and other activities that promote informed consumer decisionmaking.

Plans, Practitioners, and Facilities

A major issue for consumers and other health care purchasers is how to pick health care plans, practitioners, and facilities based on quality and value. One important tool that can help is "report cards"—comparative information on plans' abilities to provide high-quality, accessible services that satisfy consumers.

AHCPR is at the forefront of efforts to gather information from consumers and provide them with the tools they need to make more informed choices about their health care. Following are some AHCPR initiatives in this area:

  • Consumer Surveys. Through a contract with the Research Triangle Institute, AHCPR designed a survey to collect key information on consumers' attitudes about access to health care, use of specific services, health outcomes, perceived quality of care, and satisfaction with care. This survey builds on the experience of health care purchasers, managed care plans, and other potential users.

    Through the Consumer Assessments of Health Plans Study, selected organizations will work with AHCPR to refine and test existing sets of questions about consumer perceptions of health care plans and services. The resulting survey protocols will be used to obtain information from consumers in a variety of real-world settings. The ultimate goal of this study is to evaluate the usefulness of the survey results in helping consumers select health plans.

  • Pilot Scorecard. A collaborative project with the State of Oregon and the AHCPR regional Rural Health Center at the University of Washington and Oregon Health Sciences University will develop a pilot scorecard on the quality of health care plans and use the results to develop options for broad implementation by the State of Oregon.

  • Innovative Information Tools. Six projects funded under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Program are developing innovative computer software and other materials to help consumers—including those who are members of minority groups, disabled, or have low reading skills—make informed choices about health care plans and providers.

SBIR awardees are encouraged to commercialize their research. One such product now on the market is the video game "Rex Ronan—Experimental Surgeon," which teaches young people the dangers of tobacco use.
  • Research. AHCPR funds research on relevant topics such as how well consumers understand managed care and quality indicators, and the extent to which they find these indicators useful in making health care choices.

  • Expert meeting. Researchers, policymakers, industry representatives, and members of consumer organizations with "cutting-edge" expertise in consumer information helped AHCPR gain a better understanding of consumer information needs and preferences. (April 1994)

  • Focus groups. Vulnerable consumers—including rural residents, persons with low incomes, African Americans, and Hispanics—revealed how they define quality in a health care plan, what kinds of information they want, and what questions they might ask during the plan selection process. (September 1994)

  • Conference. Consumers, employers, health policy experts, and researchers shared diverse viewpoints regarding existing knowledge and experience in conducting and interpreting consumer surveys. The conference was cosponsored by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (September 1994)

Personal Health Care Decisions

  • Guideline Information. AHCPR publishes free "consumer guides" about the benefits and risks of treatments for specific medical conditions. These brochures are based on clinical practice guidelines, which are supported by AHCPR to improve the quality and effectiveness of care.

    AHCPR has widely publicized and disseminated nearly 9 million consumer guides. AHCPR also grants permission to private-sector groups to reprint and distribute guideline publications; thus far, reprints of over 5 million consumer guides have been approved. For example, one pharmaceutical company is reprinting and using the consumer guide on heart failure in the Nation's largest general practice clinical trial.

  • Other Consumer Publications. AHCPR publishes other consumer information, including: Checkup on Health Insurance Choices, to help consumers select health insurance plans; and Questions To Ask Your Doctor Before You Have Surgery, to help consumers decide about surgery and get the best results. AHCPR is developing other publications to help consumers become better informed users of the health care system.

  • Interactive Videos. AHCPR-supported Patient Outcomes Research Teams studying back pain, benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), prostate cancer, and ischemic heart disease provided the science that led to the development of interactive video programs on these topics by the Foundation for Informed Medical Decision Making. The videos help patients make decisions about treatment options based on their probable risks and benefits.

    AHCPR awarded two grants for performing randomized trials to compare use of the back pain and BPH videos to more traditional methods of providing consumer information on these topics.

Leading consumer advocates have praised AHCPR's consumer guides. Syndicated columnist Ann Landers has called the consumer guide on depression "the best material on the subject—most comprehensive and least technical."

The consumer guides are used—and work. For example, Knox Community Hospital in Mount Vernon, Ohio, reports that, thanks to the consumer guide on acute pain management, patients are less anxious, recover faster, and are better able to manage their conditions following discharge from the hospital.

AHRQ, a part of the Department of Health and Human Services, is the lead agency charged with supporting research designed to improve the quality of health care, reduce its cost, and broaden access to essential services. AHRQ's broad programs of research, clinical guideline development, and technology assessment bring practical, science-based information to medical practitioners and to consumers and other health care purchasers.

AHCPR Publication No. 96-P046
Current as of March 1997


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


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