Background: Many of the indicators used to monitor the quality of hospital care are resource intensive and ineffective. Furthermore, current efforts to develop new indicators for report cards are generally directed at the evaluation of health plans and are not constructed to help providers (physician groups, hospitals, and health plans that contract to provide care to patients) find and fix problems with the quality of care at their organizations.
Four questions: Before using an indicator, four questions should be posed: (1) When cases identified by the indicator are examined, can one find a set of definable and preventable processes of care known to lead to a bad outcome? (2) Can a review instrument be created that will allow providers to identify which process problems are present? (3) Are there substantially more process problems in those cases identified by the indicator than in those cases not identified by the indicator, and can the sensitivity and specificity of the indicator be defined? and (4) Is the indicator primarily useful for quality improvement efforts by a provider, or is it also useful as an external measure of quality across providers? A FOUR-STEP FRAMEWORK: Four corresponding steps comprise an efficient validation method to produce indicators that detect deficiencies in an important process-outcome continuum, help produce the tools to find the deficiencies, document the efficiency of using the indicator to search for process problems, and define the appropriate use of the indicator. Use of such validated indicators, and the information about their utility, would allow providers to optimize the impact of money spent on quality improvement efforts.