Getting Transparency Right

Paul Levy

First published 6/1/11 on Running a Hospital

This is about transparency, when it is useful and when it is not. The term is now an established part of the health care lexicon, but there is little substantive discussion about how it is being used.

As I said in an article in Business Week over three years ago:

There are often misconceptions as people talk about “transparency” in the health-care field. They say the main societal value is to provide information so patients can make decisions about which hospital to visit for a given diagnosis or treatment. As for hospitals, people believe the main strategic value of transparency is to create a competitive advantage vis-à-vis other hospitals in the same city or region. Both these impressions are misguided.

Transparency’s major societal and strategic imperative is to provide creative tension within hospitals so that they hold themselves accountable. This accountability is what will drive doctors, nurses, and administrators to seek constant improvements in the quality and safety of patient care.

Now, there rises an additional misconception. The perversion of the transparency concept that has evolved rides on the desire of CMS and private insurance companies to use publicly published outcome data to financially reward or penalize hospitals. As expected, this is raising hackles. The complaints often heard from hospitals are ones we have discussed before: “The data are wrong.” “Our patients are sicker.”

I am not going to accept those complaints, but I am going to suggest that the usual government mandates for transparency of data provide little basis for the kind of process improvement we need in hospitals. What’s wrong with these mandates?

For one thing, the data are old. While you cannot manage what you do not measure, trying to manage with data that are a year or two or more older is like trying to drive viewing the road through a rearview mirror. The principles of Lean process improvement and other such systems suggest that real time “visual cues” of how the organization is doing are essential. Why? Because that kind of data is indicative of the state of the organization right now, not what existed months or years ago. Such data are collected in hospitals on a current basis. If their main purpose is to support process improvement, they do not need external validation or auditing to be made transparent in real time.

For another thing, the choice of data in the government’s approach to transparency is externally imposed. Process improvement occurs when the people who do the work jointly decide what areas of change are important. We need to trust that the clinicians and administrators in hospitals, working with their patients and boards of trustees, are better able to decide on quality and safety priorities than the government or its agents. We want the hospitals to be transparent about the metrics theychoose, knowing that their doctors, nurses, other staff will value the results highly and act on them.

Finally, the payers’ approach to transparency creates attention on meeting certain outcomes, rather than stimulating a desire to design and implement a comprehensive structure to achieve better outcomes. A wise colleague said recently, “Obsession with outcome without obsession with structure will fail.”

Captain Sullenberger talked about this in another respect: “A checklist alone is not sufficient. What makes it effective are the attitude, behavior, and teamwork that goes along with the use of it.”

In summary, transparency of data alone is not sufficient. What makes it powerful in establishing creative tension in an organization are: The currency of the data; the fact that the metrics being made transparent have been chosen by those involved in the process improvement efforts; and the fact that the transparent outcomes are supported by a structure of ongoing process improvement.

As we have seen by examples on this blog, those hospitals that have been most effective in the challenge of process improvement have not done so because a government agency is making their clinical outcomes transparent. They have done so because the administrative and clinical leadership, strongly supported and encouraged by boards of trustees, have made it clear that this kind of effort is a top priority. More and more places each month have discovered the importance of transparency in supporting their efforts. How this takes place will be specific to each hospital, but it is clear that, to be effective and sustainable, change must come from within.

Paul Levy writes at Not Running A Hospital.

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