Background: Several countries use hospital-wide mortality rates to evaluate the quality of hospital care, although the usefulness of this metric has been questioned. Massachusetts policymakers recently requested an assessment of methods to calculate this aggregate mortality metric for use as a measure of hospital quality.
Methods: The Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance and Policy provided four vendors with identical information on 2,528,624 discharges from Massachusetts acute care hospitals from October 1, 2004, through September 30, 2007. Vendors applied their risk-adjustment algorithms and provided predicted probabilities of in-hospital death for each discharge and for hospital-level observed and expected mortality rates. We compared the numbers and characteristics of discharges and hospitals included by each of the four methods. We also compared hospitals' standardized mortality ratios and classification of hospitals with mortality rates that were higher or lower than expected, according to each method.
Results: The proportions of discharges that were included by each method ranged from 28% to 95%, and the severity of patients' diagnoses varied widely. Because of their discharge-selection criteria, two methods calculated in-hospital mortality rates (4.0% and 5.9%) that were twice the state average (2.1%). Pairwise associations (Pearson correlation coefficients) of discharge-level predicted mortality probabilities ranged from 0.46 to 0.70. Hospital-performance categorizations varied substantially and were sometimes completely discordant. In 2006, a total of 12 of 28 hospitals that had higher-than-expected hospital-wide mortality when classified by one method had lower-than-expected mortality when classified by one or more of the other methods.
Conclusions: Four common methods for calculating hospital-wide mortality produced substantially different results. This may have resulted from a lack of standardized national eligibility and exclusion criteria, different statistical methods, or fundamental flaws in the hypothesized association between hospital-wide mortality and quality of care. (Funded by the Massachusetts Division of Health Care Finance and Policy.).