When ‘Just Google It’ Isn’t Enough For Health Care Quality

July 28, 2017

Information and tools are not necessarily enough to help people arrive at sensible health care decisions, much less produce better outcomes.

In today’s information-intensive age, we often rely on search engines and websites to gather details with the hope of arriving at an informed decision. I myself do this when deliberating on which new restaurants to try or which cities to visit. Like many others, I am trying to learn about the particular qualities of the establishments and cities that I think are important.

In health care, policy experts and leaders often propose more transparency in quality information, arguing that an informed patient can make smarter decisions about his or her health. Theoretically, such an approach can positively affect a patient’s health outcomes and help with reducing costs. Consumers are increasingly relying on the wisdom of the internet or online tools designed by tech start-ups to search for health information. But do people really want to look for C-section rates and hospital ratings like they do for a new restaurant? When people face a serious medical choice, what kind of information do they look for, whether from the internet or other sources? Do they try to find out about the quality of doctors and hospitals before getting care?

Public Agenda recently surveyed people with three different types of health care needs — people recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, people who recently had joint replacement surgery and women who recently gave birth— to learn more about what qualities of doctors or hospitals they think are important and how, if at all, they try to find information about these qualities. We found that a large majority of people across the three health care situations think that both interpersonal and clinical qualities of doctors and hospitals are important for high-quality care. But does that mean they are looking for information about doctors and hospitals?

In fact, our research shows that more people across these three groups spent time looking for information about the care they needed than spent time looking for information about doctors or hospitals. For instance, 85 percent of women who recently gave birth say they spent a lot of time learning about pregnancy and birth, but only 43 percent say they spent a lot of time finding out everything they could about different OB-GYNs/midwives and hospitals.

This finding raises the question: If people say qualities of doctors and hospitals matter, why don’t they take the time to learn about them? Our findings suggest several potential reasons. For example, we found that few people are aware that quality varies across doctors or across hospitals. Some people don’t think or know if they have much choice among hospitals in particular.

Looking for information about qualities just may not be top of mind for many people: We found that most women who recently gave birth did not know or try to find out about important qualities because it did not occur to them to do so. Only about one quarter to one third of people across the three groups we surveyed say there is not enough information about the quality of doctors or hospitals for their respective type of care.

Information and tools are not necessarily enough to help people arrive at sensible health care decisions, much less produce better outcomes. While searching for information can be great for planning your next dinner or destination, people need support and guidance in making more decisions about health care. Online tools can help unlock information. But simply having access to quality information isn’t enough if people aren’t looking for it or understand it when they find it. This is particularly concerning when it impacts something as consequential as medical care. This is where doctors, insurers, medical experts and leaders can step in to make sure that people are not only well informed but also have support navigating the system before receiving care.

For more insights into what qualities matter in diabetes care, joint replacement surgery and maternity care, check out our report, “Qualities that Matter.”


Antonio Diep

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