Defenders of small, rural hospitals take issue with study that found poor patient outcomes

A recent study that concluded small, rural “critical access hospitals” have poorer patient outcomes and lower quality of care is making waves in the medical community. A federally funded monitoring team from three universities issued a response noting certain weaknesses of the study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association earlier this month.

It’s not news that critical-access hospitals “have room for improvement,” the team wrote. “What the JAMA authors fail to report is how much CAH scores on the process of care measures have improved over time,” it writes. “Our most recent trend analysis, for example, shows that CAH scores on each of the pneumonia measures increased between 9 and 22 percentage points between 2005 and 2009.”
The analysis in question was performed by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health. It focused on nearly 1,300 critical access hospitals and looked at the outcomes of Medicare patients who have congestive heart failure, heart attacks and pneumonia. For all three conditions, CAHs performed at a lower standard. Patients at CAHs were more likely to die, and the facilities were behind in implementing electronic health records. It also found CAHs had a smaller number of specialists like cardiologists working at them than at non-CAHs. “That doesn’t sound like news to us, either,” said Al Cross, director of the Institiute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.
“Issues such as the limited supply of primary care providers, home health and hospice services, rather than the supply of specialists, should be the focus of interventions to improve rural health quality,” said the Flex Monitoring Team, named after its assignment, to evaluate the Medicare Rural Hospital Flexibility Grant Program. The team is made up of researchers from the University of Southern Maine, the University of Minnesota and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. (Read more)
Writing for the Daily Yonder, Dr. Robert C. Bowman, family-medicine professor at the A.T. Still University School of Osteopathic Medicine in Arizona, also took issue with the study, in part because its findings ran counter to an article that was also published in JAMA last year. That article concluded that “greater proportions of underinsured, minority, and non-English-speaking patients were associated with lower quality rankings for primary-care physicians,” Bowman quotes.
“Now JAMA has an article this year claiming lower quality of care in certain types of rural hospitals that are completely different in location, population, funding, and workforce,” Bowman writes. “So what happened between last year, when patients made the difference in quality, and this year when it was location of the hospital? … Why do sophisticated researchers, reviewers, and editors maximize the context of care sometimes (in 2010) and minimize it at other times (in 2011)?”
Bowman, founder of the Rural Medical Educators Group of the National Rural Health Association, took a jab at the researchers. “Do Harvard University researchers associated with hospitals with the most sources of income and the highest reimbursement rates even have the perspective to write about hospitals with the least lines of funding and the lowest reimbursement in each line?”
Though he takes issue with the article, Bowman said the topic “about high and lower quality critical access hospitals” is worthy of research. “Perhaps one of the problems with attempting such research is that there is little variation across rural hospitals. Perhaps that’s because the system is designed to spend uniformly less on health care across rural America. . . . The end result is less care and less economic impact from health care in 30,000 zip codes with 65 percent of the U.S. population. And more care delivered in 3,400 zip codes in 4 percent of the land area.” (Read more)
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