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Public Reporting as a Quality Improvement Strategy

In 2004, AHRQ launched a collection of evidence reports, Closing the Quality Gap: A Critical Analysis of Quality Improvement Strategies, to bring data to bear on quality improvement opportunities. These reports summarized the evidence on quality improvement strategies related to chronic conditions, practice areas, and cross-cutting priorities. This evidence report is part of a new series, Closing the Quality Gap: Revisiting the State of the Science. This report evaluates the effectiveness of public reporting of health care quality information as a quality improvement strategy.

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Structured Abstract

Objectives: The goal of this review was to evaluate the effectiveness of public reporting of health care quality information as a quality improvement strategy. We sought to determine if public reporting results in improvements in health care delivery and patient outcomes. We also considered whether public reporting affects the behavior of patients or of health care providers. Finally we assessed whether the characteristics of the public reports and the context affect the impact of public reports.

Data Sources: Articles available between 1980 and 2011 were identified through searches of the following bibliographical databases: MEDLINE®, Embase, EconLit, PsychINFO, Business Source Premier, CINAHL, PAIS, Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, EPOC Register of Studies, DARE, NHS EED, HEED, NYAM Grey Literature Report database, and other sources (experts, reference lists, and gray literature).

Review Methods: We screened citations based on inclusion and exclusion criteria developed based on our definition of public reporting. We initially did not exclude any studies based on study design. Of the 11,809 citations identified through title and abstract triage, we screened and reviewed 1,632 articles. A total of 97 quantitative and 101 qualitative studies were included, abstracted, entered into tables, and evaluated. The heterogeneity of outcomes as well as methods prohibited formal quantitative synthesis. Systematic reviews were used to identify studies, but their conclusions were not incorporated into this review.

Results: For most of the outcomes, the strength of the evidence available to assess the impact of public reporting was moderate. This was due in part to the methodological challenges researchers face in designing and conducting research on the impact of population-level interventions. Public reporting is associated with improvement in health care performance measures such as those included in Nursing Home Compare. Almost all identified studies found no evidence or only weak evidence that public reporting affects the selection of health care providers by patients or their representatives. Studies of health care providers' response to public reports suggest they engage in activities to improve quality when performance data are made public. Characteristics of public reports and the context, which are likely to be important when considering the diffusion of quality improvement activities, were rarely studied or even described.

Conclusions: The heterogeneity of the outcomes and the moderate strength of evidence for most outcomes make it difficult to draw definitive conclusions. However, some observations were supported by existing research. Public reporting is more likely to be associated with changes in health care provider behaviors than with selection of health services providers by patients or families. Quality measures that are publicly reported improve over time. Although the potential for harms is frequently cited by commentators and critics of public reporting, the amount of research on harms is limited and most studies do not confirm the potential harm.

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Closing the Quality Gap: Revisiting the State of the Science Series: Public Reporting as a Quality Improvement Strategy

Evidence-based Practice Center: Oregon EPC

Page last reviewed July 2012
Internet Citation: Public Reporting as a Quality Improvement Strategy. Content last updated July 2012. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.


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