Chapter 1. Introduction and Methods

National Healthcare Quality Report, 2010

In 1999, Congress directed the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) to produce an annual report, starting in 2003, on "national trends in the quality of health care provided to the American people."i With support from the Department of Health and Human Services and private-sector partners, AHRQ has designed and produced the National Healthcare Quality Report (NHQR) to respond to this legislative mandate. The NHQR provides a comprehensive overview of the quality of health care received by the general U.S. population and is designed to summarize data across a wide range of patient needs"staying healthy, getting better, living with chronic illness and disability, and coping with the end of life.

AHRQ was further tasked with producing an annual report that tracks "prevailing disparities in health care delivery as it relates to racial factors and socioeconomic factors in priority populations."ii The National Healthcare Disparities Report (NHDR) has also been produced since 2003. The referenced priority populations consist of groups with unique health care needs or issues that require special focus, such as racial and ethnic minorities, low-income populations, and people with special health care needs. AHRQ's charge includes a directive to examine disparities in health care access, utilization, costs, outcomes, satisfaction, and perceptions of care.

The NHQR and NHDR are complementary and are designed to be used together. Combined, they provide an annual snapshot of how our Nation's health care system is performing and the extent to which health care quality and disparities have improved or worsened over time.

With support from a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Interagency Work Group and AHRQ's National Advisory Council, AHRQ has designed and produced the NHQR and NHDR since 2003. This is the eighth in the series of reports. Over the years, the NHQR and NHDR have introduced refinements to the measure set and methodology, which has led to a focus on a subset of the most important and scientifically supported measures. These are referred to as the core measure set and are again the focus of the reports this year.

Refinements include the addition in 2004 of a second critical goal of the report series: tracking the Nation's quality improvement progress. The 2005 reports introduced a set of core measures and a variety of new composite measures. The 2006 reports continued to improve data, measures, and methods, adding databases and measures and refining methods for quantifying and tracking changes in health care. The 2007 reports launched a new chapter on health care efficiency. The 2008 reports included an expanded chapter on patient safety, while the 2009 reports included new sections on lifestyle modification, health care-associated infection, and care coordination.

From the beginning, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) has helped shape these reports. Early planning for the first NHQR benefited from the IOM reports, Crossing the Quality Chasm and To Err Is Human. Similarly, early planning for the first NHDR profited from the extensive literature review included in the IOM report, Unequal Treatment. Moreover, before the publication of the first reports, AHRQ specifically requested that the IOM assist the Agency in meeting its congressionally mandated charge. The IOM was tasked with developing a vision for the two quality reports. With rapid changes in health care, AHRQ saw the need to review the reports for their appropriateness to the current health care environment.

In 2008, AHRQ again commissioned the IOM to review past reports and offer recommendations for enhancing future reports and associated products. To this end, the IOM established a consensus committee, the Committee on Future Directions for the National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Reports.iii The committee has offered recommendations on priority areas for health care quality improvement, measure selection, methodological approaches, and formatting and presentation of report findings.iv

This chapter summarizes AHRQ's methodological approach to producing the 2010 reports. While the 2010 reports contain almost all of the same measures tracked in previous versions of the NHQR and NHDR, many of the IOM's recommendations have been implemented, and the organization and content of the reports have changed extensively. Significant enhancements have been made to the reports to strengthen understanding of performance across the multiple dimensions of health care quality, better capture and track trends in disparities, and quantify the potential for future progress in meeting quality goals.

Consistent with past reports, the 2010 reports focus on a specific theme. In the 2010 reports, analyses include contrasts along the urban-rural continuum wherever data are available. With these refinements, the 2010 NHQR and NHDR substantively advance our Nation's understanding of the progress that is being made in improving quality and reducing disparities in the U.S. health care system.

IOM Recommendations for Enhancing the NHQR and NHDR

The 2010 reports begin the process of incorporating suggestions from the IOM about how to maximize the utility of the reports and related products. AHRQ received recommendations from the IOM in April 2010. These recommendations guided the redesign of the 2010 NHQR and NHDR and are reflected throughout these reports. Some of the key recommendations from the IOM Committee are discussed below.

Identify Priority Areas for Quality Improvement

The IOM recommended that AHRQ report on progress in selected priority areas. These priority areas are expected to yield the greatest gains in health care quality. Priorities include six areas identified by the National Priorities Partnership (NPP),v as well as two areas proposed by the IOM Committee. Measures selected for reporting reflect concepts captured in the priority areas, as listed below:

Priority areas designated by the NPP
  • Patient and family engagement.
  • Population health.
  • Safety.
  • Care coordination.
  • Palliative care.
  • Overuse of services.
Priority areas designated by the IOM Committee
  • Access to care.
  • Health system infrastructure.

Some of these areas mapped directly into existing report sections and are included in those sections of each report. Patient and family engagement is covered in the chapter on Patient Centeredness. Safety is covered in the chapter on Patient Safety. Palliative care is covered in the section on Supportive and Palliative Care in the Effectiveness chapter.

Some areas mapped to sections in one report but not the other. Overuse is covered in the Efficiency chapter of the NHQR, but a corresponding chapter had to be developed for the NHDR. Access is covered in the Access to Care chapter of the NHDR, but a corresponding chapter had to be developed for the NHQR. Care coordination and health systems infrastructure were not covered well in any existing chapter, so new chapters were developed for both reports.

Population health measures cut across several of the quality dimensions and are included in multiple sections throughout both existing reports. Hence, performance on population health measures is not included as a separate chapter in this report. As appropriate, population health performance measures are reported in relevant chapters. For example, the population measure "adults with obesity who ever received advice from a health provider to exercise" is reported in Chapter 2, "Effectiveness," in the Lifestyle Modification section. The concept of population health is also presented as an important focus of the Highlights.

Adopt Updated Quality Framework

Measures selected for inclusion in the NHQR and NHDR examine performance in each of the priority areas listed above and are organized along the elements of a quality framework developed by the IOM Committee. The framework guiding the 2009 NHQR was focused around five dimensions of quality: (1) effectiveness, (2) patient safety, (3) timeliness, (4) patient/family centeredness, and (5) efficiency. The 2010 reports retain these quality dimensions and, in keeping with the suggestions offered by the IOM, introduce three others: access, care coordination, and health system infrastructure.

Similarly, the 2009 NHDR encompassed many of the NHQR measures focused on effectiveness of care, as well as access and care rendered to priority populations. The quality framework presented in Figure 1.1 applies equally well to the NHQR and NHDR. As such, the 2010 NHDR substantively expands the dimensions of quality by paralleling the structure and measures presented in the NHQR. "Efficiency," a dimension of quality that was not included in previous disparities reports, has been added to the 2010 NHDR.

The revised quality framework posits that care coordination and health system infrastructure are foundational components that must be in place to achieve quality objectives in each of the other quality areas. Measures corresponding to elements of this quality framework are further described below in the section titled "Measure Set for NHQR and NHDR."


Figure 1-1. Quality Framework for the 2010 NHQR and NHDR

Figure 1.1.  Quality Framework for the 2010 NHQR and NHDR. Go to [D] Text Description for details.

[D] Select for Text Description.

Source: Ulmer C, Bruno M, Burke S, eds. Future directions for the National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Reports. Committee on Future Directions of the National Healthcare Quality and Disparities Reports, Institute of Medicine. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2010.

Use Subnational Data

National data to assess performance and the presence of disparities in health care are unavailable for several key measures of quality. In many cases, these data are simply not being collected. The IOM recommends the use of subnational data (e.g., State-level data) to construct performance measures when national data are unavailable. For example, national data on the quality of care rendered to people with HIV/AIDS are generally unavailable. Data from the HIV Research Network, which represents 18 medical practices across the United States treating more than 14,000 patients with HIV/AIDS, were used in both the NHQR and NHDR to gather information on the care received by this population. Although not nationally representative, the data provide some insight into the care received by people with HIV/AIDS and may serve as a catalyst to expanded data collection at the national level.

Expand Stratification

The IOM recommended that the NHDR stratify quality measures by the race and ethnicity categories identified by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), primary language or English proficiency, and socioeconomic and insurance status. Past versions of the NHDR have reported quality measures according to these sociodemographic characteristic. The 2010 NHDR report continues to include these categories and to show economic and insurance strata. The NHQR expands assessments of performance based on geographic region, specifically, analyses of quality and disparities across the urban-rural continuum.

Modify Benchmarking Strategy

Performance and the potential for quality improvement are best evaluated relative to the evidence on what is achievable. Achievable benchmarks, which demonstrate the "best" attained performance on individual quality measures, were incorporated into the 2010 reports, per the recommendation of the IOM Committee. Identical benchmarks were used to characterize performance in both the NHDR and NHQR.

Benchmarks have been identified based on data from the top-performing States. In identifying the top-performing States, we calculated performance on selected measures separately with data from each of the 50 States.

States were ranked in order of performance and the top 10% were identified. The average performance among these top-ranking States was designated as the measure benchmark. Because data were not always available to estimate performance for each State, the 10% criterion was used only when data for a minimum of 30 States were reported.

Create Action-Oriented Products

The NHQR and NHDR and related products should guide or support action. These reports may be made more actionable by including priority areas and benchmarks. Including examples of "best practices" would further emphasize the opportunities available to improve quality and reduce disparities.

Track Access Better

The NHDR has traditionally included a chapter on access to care, identifying the facilitators and barriers to care and health care utilization experiences of subgroups defined by race and ethnicity, income, education, and type of health insurance. Pursuant to the IOM's recommendations, a chapter on access to care, which has not been specifically tracked in the NHQR, has been added to the 2010 NHQR.

How This Report Is Organized

NHQR and NHDR chapters are organized along the elements of the quality framework. Several of the proposed priority areas that are reflected in this framework have been monitored in previous quality and disparities reports; however, labels and organization of measures within chapters slightly differed. Measures that reflect the concepts underlying the newly defined priority list have been carried over to the 2010 reports and organized in chapters corresponding to the revised quality framework. Measures corresponding to priority areas that are new to the 2010 reports were identified with the assistance of the Interagency Work Group and are noted in the description of chapters below.

For the first time, key findings from the NHDR are incorporated into relevant sections of the NHQR and major findings from the NHQR are mentioned in the NHDR. Integration of findings across the two reports emphasizes the interrelatedness of the two reports and provides a more robust description of the health care system's performance overall and for population subgroups.

Continuing Chapters From Past Reports

  • Highlights, which precedes this chapter, provides information to understand patterns of performance within priority areas, insight on the progress that has been made in advancing health care quality in the United States, and implications of report findings for meeting national performance objectives. The Highlights incorporate findings from both the NHQR and NHDR and the same Highlights chapter is used in both reports.
  • Chapter 1: Introduction and Methods describes changes that have occurred between the 2009 and 2010 reports, such as modifications to the quality framework, measures added and excluded, and methodological changes in estimating and presenting data. An overall description of the measure set is also presented.
  • Chapter 2: Effectiveness examines effectiveness of health care in the general U.S. population. The 2010 report is organized around eight clinical areas: cancer, diabetes, end stage renal disease (ESRD), heart disease, HIV and AIDS, maternal and child health, mental health and substance abuse, and respiratory diseases. Three types of health care services that typically cut across clinical conditions are also examined: lifestyle modification, functional status preservation and rehabilitation, and supportive and palliative care.
  • Chapter 3: Patient Safety tracks measures of safety, including healthcare-associated infections, postoperative and other hospital complications, and preventable hospital deaths.
  • Chapter 4: Timeliness examines the delivery of time-sensitive clinical care and patient perceptions of how quickly they receive care.
  • Chapter 5: Patient Centeredness examines patients' experiences with care in an office or clinic setting, as well as during a hospital stay. Measures reported in this chapter focus on perceptions of communication with providers and satisfaction with the physician-patient relationship.
  • Chapter 10: Priority Populations continues to be unique to the NHDR. This chapter summarizes quality and disparities in care for populations identified as particularly significant to quality improvement efforts:
    • Racial and ethnic minorities.
    • Low-income groups.
    • Women.
    • Children.
    • Older adults.
    • Residents of rural areas and inner cities.
    • Individuals with disabilities or special health care needs.

New Chapters for the 2010 Reports

  • Chapter 6: Care Coordination is new to both the NHQR and NHDR. This chapter presents data to assess the performance of the U.S. health care system in coordinating care across providers or services. The quality framework identifies care coordination as a foundational dimension of quality, a component that facilitates the achievement of other health care system goals. Care coordination is represented by systems and processes that help patients successfully navigate across often disconnected health care components (e.g., physicians, hospitals, postacute services, social services) to meet their ongoing health needs. Measures of care coordination in the 2010 NHQR and NHDR address NPP goals, focusing on the adequacy of medical information received or obtained by providers, facilitators and barriers to care coordination, and outcomes associated with poorly coordinated care.

    Measures included in both the quality and disparities reports are:

    • Heart failure patients who receive complete discharge information.
    • Readmissions for congestive heart failure.
    • Provider communication with other physicians concerning a patient's medications.
    • Hospital electronic exchange of information.
    • Preventable emergency department visits for asthma.
  • Chapter 7: Efficiency focuses in part on overuse of health services. Measures of health system efficiency, which capture information on how well the health care system promotes quality, affordable care, and appropriate use of services, have typically been reported in the NHQR but not the NHDR.

    For the first time, the 2010 NHDR includes a chapter focusing on efficiency measures. These measures capture information on overuse, underuse, and misuse of health care among population subgroups. Efficiency measures reported in the 2010 NHDR are:

    • Rates of potentially avoidable hospitalizations.
    • Hospitalizations for conditions covered in AHRQ's Prevention Quality Indicators (PQIs).
    • Potentially avoidable hospitalizations among home health and nursing home patients.
    • Unnecessary services and costs, as measured by the percentage of males over age 75 who had a prostate-specific antigen test or a digital rectal exam within the previous year.
  • Chapter 8: Health Systems Infrastructure, which explores the capacity of health care systems to support high-quality care, is new to both reports. The IOM recommended including health system infrastructure as a priority area because measuring performance in terms of health care infrastructure capacity can "[i]mprove the foundation of health care systems (including infrastructure for data and quality improvement; communication across settings for coordination of care; and workforce capacity and distribution to support high-quality care."

    Unlike most measures, health system capabilities were not assessed at the person level but according to region and provider characteristics. Infrastructure measures, which are primarily structural measures of quality, include:

    • Distribution of U.S. pharmacy professionals.
    • Adoption of office-based computerized systems.
    • Hospital use of fully implemented computerized systems, by key functions.
    • Presence of hospital patient safety culture components (e.g., teamwork within units).
  • Chapter 9: Access includes measures that focus on barriers to care, such as the U.S. population that is uninsured, financial barriers to care experienced by the population with health insurance, and people with a usual source of care. The NHDR has traditionally included a chapter on access to care, identifying facilitators and barriers to care and health care utilization of subgroups defined by race and ethnicity, income, education, and type of health insurance. Pursuant to the IOM's recommendations, a chapter on access to care, which has not been specifically tracked in the NHQR, has been added to the 2010 NHQR. Access is measured based on the following:
    • Availability of health insurance.
    • Availability of a usual source of care.
    • Patient assessment of how easy it is to gain access to health care.
    • Successful receipt of needed services.

Appendixes will be available online for both the NHQR and NHDR at . These appendixes include:

  • Data Sources, which provides information about each database analyzed for the reports, including data type, sample design, and primary content.
  • Measure Specifications, which provides information about how measures are generated and analyzed for the reports. Measures highlighted in the report are described, as well as other measures that were examined but not included in the text of the report.
  • Detailed Methods, which provides detailed methodological and statistical information about selected databases analyzed for the reports.
  • Data Tables, which contains detailed data tables for most measures analyzed for the reports, including measures highlighted in the report text and measures examined but not included in the text. A few measures cannot support detailed tables and are not included in the appendix.

Theme of 2010 Reports

This year's focus on health care performance in rural and inner-city areas required the identification of a standardized approach to identifying communities by level of urbanization. With input from the Interagency Work Group, AHRQ selected the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) Urban-Rural Classification Scheme to guide analyses involving geographic location. The 2006 NCHS classification system is derived from data gathered from three sources: the OMB metropolitan and nonmetropolitan designations, the Rural-Urban Continuum and Urban Influence coding systems, and the U.S. Census. NCHS includes six urbanization categories, including four metropolitan and two nonmetropolitan county designations. Definitions of metropolitan and nonmetropolitan designations are shown in Table 1.1.

Although an effort was made to standardize reporting of data according to the NCHS classification system, a number of data sources collected this information using alternative classification models. For example, data in the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) were organized according to the classification system shown in Table 1.2. To the extent feasible, this classification system was modified to correspond to the 2006 NCHS classification scheme. Because correspondence between the NSDUH's nonmetropolitan subgroups and that of the NCHS classification system was poor, for purposes of analysis, nonmetropolitan regions were not subset. Thus, NSDUH performance measures are reported for three metropolitan subgroups and for nonmetropolitan regions as a whole. In other cases, where source data did not provide sufficient detail to adapt to the NCHS model, analyses of performance used aggregated categories (e.g., metropolitan versus nonmetropolitan.)

Table 1.1. 2006 NCHS Urban-Rural Classification System

Large central metropolitan

Counties in a metropolitan statistical area of 1 million or more population:

  1. That contain the entire population of the largest principal city of the metropolitan statistical area, or
  2. Whose entire population resides in the largest principal city of the metropolitan statistical area, or
  3. That contain at least 250,000 of the population of any principal city in the metropolitan statistical area
Large fringe metropolitan Counties in a metropolitan statistical area of 1 million or more population that do not qualify as large central
Medium metropolitan Counties in a metropolitan statistical area of 250,000 to 999,999 population
Small metropolitan Counties in a metropolitan statistical area of 50,000 to 249,999 population
Micropolitan Counties with urban population of 20,000 to 49,999, adjacent to metro area
Noncore Counties that are neither metropolitan nor micropolitan

Source: Ingram D, Franco S. 2006 Rural-Urban Classification Scheme for Counties. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, NCHS, 2006. Available at

Table 1.2. NSDUH data classification and modified classification for metropolitan and nonmetropolitan communities

NSDUH Rural/Urban Classification Modified NSDUH Classification for NHQR and NHDR
Large metropolitan Large central and fringe metropolitan
Small metropolitan 250K-1,000,000 Medium metropolitan
Small metropolitan <250K Small metropolitan
Urbanized = 20,000 or more Excluded from analyses
Less urbanized = 2,500-20,000 Excluded from analyses
Completely rural = 2,500 or less Excluded from analyses

i 42 U.S.C. 299b-2(b)(2)
ii 42 U.S.C. 299a-1(a)6)
iii The committee's report is available at:
iv In addition to guidance specific to the reports, the IOM provided recommendations about standardizing collection and coding of data on race, ethnicity, and language in the report Race, Ethnicity, and Language Data. We continue to seek opportunities to show data in the reports on disparities related to granular ethnicity and language preference, but such health care data are rare.
v The NPP is a partnership of public and private health care stakeholders who have come together to establish priorities and goals to eliminate harm to patients, eliminate health care disparities, and reduce disease burden and health system waste. More information on the National Priorities Partnership is available at:

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Page last reviewed October 2014
Internet Citation: Chapter 1. Introduction and Methods: National Healthcare Quality Report, 2010. October 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.