boston.com Your Life your connection to The Boston Globe

Wanted: More information on healthcare

More than one-quarter of Massachusetts adults said they or a family member had experienced a medical error while hospitalized, according to a survey being released today. Yet most of these same adults said they spent less than two hours doing research the last time they chose a doctor or hospital.

That compares with several days spent collecting information when they bought their last car.

The survey of 1,000 adults, conducted last month for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Massachusetts, reveals good reason for this seeming dichotomy, said Andrew Dreyfus, the insurer's executive vice president for healthcare services. The type of information people want about their healthcare providers is generally unavailable.

"What we learned is that Massachusetts consumers are hungry for information to help them make educated decisions when they choose their physician or their hospital," he said. "But when they have to make those important decisions about where to get care, there is very little usable and reliable information today."

As a growing number of employers and elected officials push for greater transparency about the quality and cost of medical care, the Blue Cross survey (posted at bluecrossma.com/healthcareexcellence) provides a window into what consumers want. The survey is to be released today at a conference on healthcare quality in Boston.

Massachusetts officials are counting on the release of cost and quality information to help reduce healthcare costs. The theory -- as yet unproven -- is that consumers provided with detailed information will choose high-quality, low-cost providers for nonemergency care, which in the long run will put pressure on high-cost providers to become more efficient.

So far the state has posted information on its website, www.mass.gov/healthcareqc, about whether individual hospitals' costs for particular procedures are low, high, or average; mortality rates for heart surgery by hospital and doctor; and how often surgeons perform 10 common or complex procedures, among other information. A council established under the state's mandatory health insurance law is charged with developing more public data.

But many of the Massachusetts residents surveyed said they want information that is unavailable because it's difficult to collect or standardize comparisons between providers or has not yet been developed. Publicizing information has also met with objections from doctors and hospitals., which in some cases have has slowed the process.

In choosing a doctor, people surveyed said the most important information is the doctor's experience treating a specific medical condition, the average amount of time the doctor spends with each patient, and patient satisfaction ratings. Most of the people who participated in the survey said they now choose a medical provider based on recommendations of other doctors, a friend, or a relative.

In picking a hospital, consumers listed infection rates as most important. Massachusetts public health officials are working with hospital executives and doctors to develop standardized reporting for infection rates, which they expect to make public for individual hospitals later this year or next year. Consumers also want to know the results experienced by a hospital's patients, the accreditations the hospital has received, and the number of nurses per patient.

Quality and cost information "is going to become part of the public vocabulary in a way it hasn't been previously," Dreyfus said," and that's going to help drive further improvements in care."

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES