This story originally appeared on KERA Breakthroughs.
Health care can be a profitable business. And in the fight to attract patients, lots of hospitals are investing in amenities. But assuming you’ll get better treatment just because a hospital has a nicer lobby probably isn’t a good idea, according to Oanh Nguyen, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UTSW.
“We found that there is not much difference in terms of outcomes between hospitals that had strong financial performance versus those that had no as strong financial performance,” Nguyen says. “Which was a little surprising to us.”
Nguyen co-authored a study that assessed the relationship between the financial performance of more than 250 hospitals against their 30-day mortality and readmission rates. That means they compared how much money a hospital was making and how often their patients were dying or being readmitted to the hospital for heart attacks, congestive heart failure and pneumonia.
The hypothesis? That more profitable hospitals would deliver better care to patients.
The conclusion: “If you have heart failure or if you’re having a heart attack or pneumonia, just get to the nearest hospital,” Nguyen says. “It probably doesn’t make a huge difference in terms of how much a hospital makes – and the external manifestation of that might be how pretty the hospital looks on the outside.”
That doesn’t mean all hospitals are the same. Nguyen says if it’s not an emergency, doing some comparative research is smart.
“In cases when you have more time or it is an elective procedure, it might make sense to check out [Hospitals Compare] and see how the hospital does on outcomes that matter to you as a patient,” Nguyen says.
Hospital Compare, part of Medicare.gov, allows you to see everything from the rate of complications to how often medical imaging is used at a particular hospital.
UT Southwestern’s Dr. Ethan Halm, who also worked on the study, says if you’re deciding where to go for a high risk procedure, it makes sense to look at the volume of procedures a hospital handles. It turns out that the more doctors perform a procedure, the better they get.
“We know there’s a sort of practice makes perfect kind of relationship for health care in a lot of complicated procedures,” Halm says.
While the number of procedures a hospital handles can be helpful information for patients, Halm and Nguyen hope for more transparency about health outcomes. Their study, which appeared in the Journal of Hospital Medicine, was conducted before penalties for excessive readmissions kicked in. They hope to follow up and see whether financial consequence for poor outcomes forces hospitals to shift priorities to patients.
For now, Halm’s advice to prospective patients is simple.
“Worry less about who has the nicest billboards, or the nicest lobbies or valet parking, but who gets the best results for patients,” he says.