Why hospitals take their ratings and rankings so seriously

Despite some critics' skepticism regarding rating agencies' methodologies, hospitals and health systems take their ratings and grades seriously — so seriously that they may initiate legal action against an agency if they disagree with the rating they were given, as was the case with Chicago-based Saint Anthony Hospital and The Leapfrog Group, Kaiser Health News reports.

Saint Anthony Hospital filed a defamation complaint with the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County Oct. 30. The complaint alleged the "C" grade the hospital received from Leapfrog was based on data the ratings agency knew to be inaccurate.

"If Leapfrog publishes a 'C' grade for Saint Anthony as part of its Fall 2017 Hospital Survey Grades, it will erase years of improvements at the hospital and irreparably degrade the public perception of the hospital," the complaint states.

However, the bigger issue with a lower rating is that it makes the hospital less able to compete with others in the industry. Saint Anthony's officials argued the "A" rating it has received from Leapfrog the past two years represents "one of the most important ways Saint Anthony ... has been able to distinguish itself," according to the complaint.

Leapfrog, which filed a response to Saint Anthony Hospital's complaint last week, said the lawsuit represented an "eleventh hour gambit to turn back the clock on a disappointing safety grade based in part on the data that [the hospital] itself provided and certified, and which Leapfrog simply used in accordance with its long-established processes."

While Saint Anthony's complaint represents one of the first times a hospital has sued a rating agency over a grade, some experts suggest it won't be the last.

"In highly competitive markets, hospitals are likely to see poor grades as a challenge, and I think many will be tempted to sue the rating agencies," said Ashish Jha, MD, senior associate dean of research translation and global strategy and a professor of global health at the Boston-based Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Dr. Jha was also one of the members who helped set standards when Leapfrog was established.

However, experts note the extent to which patient safety ratings affect consumers' choice as to where or from whom they receive care is unclear. Saint Anthony's chief quality officer, Eden Takhsh, MD, told Kaiser Health News Leapfrog's patient safety rating, in particular, has a large impact on Chicago-area patients looking for care.

"We have seen, for better or worse, that people are paying a great deal of attention — not only our patients but also our stakeholders, vendors and politicians," Dr. Takhsh said, adding that the hospital's previous "A" rating is what made larger Chicago hospitals, including Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the University of Chicago Medicine, consider partnering with Saint Anthony's on various clinical initiatives.

Leapfrog has removed Saint Anthony's "C" grade for the time being, but said it will likely repost the grade pending further investigation, the report states.

To read Kaiser Health News' full report, click here.

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