Value-based payment approaches, including Medicare’s Quality Payment Program for physicians and other eligible clinicians, tie fees and bonuses to how well providers perform on various quality and cost measures. An underlying assumption of value-based payment is that quality of care can be easily measured and reported. In reality, however, performance measurement is still evolving.

A major challenge is the sheer number of metrics being tracked, which often add up to hundreds for hospitals and health systems. Clinicians can sometimes complain that all the data collection is "busy work" and question how some metrics benefit their patients. A 2014 study found that physician practices spend 15.1 hours per week tracking quality metrics for Medicare and other payers and regulators.

Framing the Issue

  • Measuring quality of care to comply with value-based payment approaches can be challenging and time-consuming for clinicians.
  • To simplify tracking quality of care, some hospitals and health systems are creating internal metric definitions and automating data collection, among other strategies.
  • By making quality-of-care metrics easier to track, health systems can help clinicians to better understand their patients' needs.

Electronic health records are being reconfigured to help ease the burden, but the learning curve has been steep. For many providers, EHRs have only turned paper-based data collection into an electronic exercise. “In a sense, it feels like you are being assessed on how effectively you use your EHR and not on how effectively you take care of patients,” says R. Henry Capps Jr., M.D., senior vice president and chief operating officer of the medical group Novant Health.

A related issue is that clinical quality is mostly measured via process metrics, which track whether key tasks, such as preventive screenings, occur. Many stakeholders are pushing for more attention to outcomes. As providers take on more financial risk for patient populations under alternative payment models, additional metrics that track the health outcomes of those populations across care sites will be needed.

“We have to win back the hearts and minds of doctors and others that measurement can be meaningful and drive improvement,” says Helen Burstin, M.D., chief scientific officer at the National Quality Forum. “We are looking to take away measures that don’t add value while identifying the path forward as we move into a more integrated approach to patient care.”

Supporting article: How to Know Which Quality Metrics to Measure

In many ways, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services' QPP is intended to move providers toward less burdensome and more meaningful quality measurement. QPP, which is part of the Medicare Access and CHIP Reauthorization Act of 2015, has two tracks. Providers in the Merit-based Incentive Payment System track only have to report six quality metrics, yet they are required to choose at least one outcome measure and are encouraged to submit electronically. Meanwhile, providers that participate in an advanced APM are tracking a number of outcome- and population health–focused measures.

Hospitals and health networks are also busy addressing strategic, information technology and other challenges around quality measurement. Here is some how-to advice from three organizations:

Tying measurement to strategic priorities

Novant Health is simultaneously reducing metric overload and driving improvement on a set of systemwide measures that leaders have identified as important. Many of these measures focus on moving toward value-based population health, which is a key strategic goal for the integrated delivery system. Based in Winston-Salem, N.C., Novant has two accountable care organizations in Track 1 of the Medicare Shared Savings Program.

While service lines within Novant track about 100 specialty-specific metrics, all clinicians are expected to help the health system improve performance on about 40 organizationwide metrics. Many of these metrics are primary care–focused, but even specialists receive EHR alerts when, for example, a patient is overdue for a mammogram.

“We feel it’s a team sport,” says Capps. “All our service lines work together on these measures. We don't necessarily expect our vascular surgeons to order mammograms, but we expect them to refer patients to a primary care physician who can take care of their preventive health needs.”

All physicians can also access a quality dashboard in the EHR that shows how they are performing on systemwide metrics compared with their peers at Novant and across the nation. In addition, physicians and their staff can drill down to a list of patients who are missing screenings or treatments tied to quality metrics.

Creating internal metric definitions

Community Healthcare System, a three-hospital system in Northwest Indiana, has devised a solution to a common quality reporting dilemma. Different payers ask providers to report on what seem to be identical measures, such as tracking hemoglobin levels in patients with diabetes. But the details often vary. For instance, one payer may define diabetes control as an A1c level below 9.0 while another defines it as one below 8.0.

Supporting article: What Types of Quality Metrics Do Advanced APMs Track?

To address the issue, Community Healthcare System created a standardized set of quality metrics for its employed and affiliated physicians. “We don’t want our physicians worrying about slightly different measurement requirements from Medicare or commercial insurers,” says Alan Kumar, M.D., the health system's senior vice president of medical affairs and chief medical officer. “We’re setting internal measures that we want our employed physicians and our physician partners to work with us on.”

To arrive at a standard internal metric, Kumar and his staff look at best-practice recommendations from relevant specialty societies and consult with key clinical staff. For instance, for diabetes metrics, they speak with their endocrinologists, primary care physicians and diabetes educators before arriving at a standard measure definition.

Automating collection and reporting

VCU Health, an academic health system based in Richmond, Va., is refining its electronic systems so that more of the data needed to track quality metrics can be collected and reported automatically without physicians, nurses or quality improvement professionals having to click extra boxes in the EHR or manually extract information.

“We don’t want to be disruptive to clinical care or create additional burden for patients or clinicians,” says Jill Bradford Shuemaker, senior clinical informaticist at VCU Health. “We’re determining how to work with our EHR and data warehouse on the back end to pull the data we need from information that is already being entered as part of the provider’s normal workflow.”

As part of this initiative, VCU Health is transitioning to electronic clinical quality measures, or eCQMs, which are health care measures configured to be captured and reported via an EHR. Because eCQMs are designed to automatically pull data from information already in the EHR and other IT systems, these electronic metrics promise to significantly reduce the administrative burden associated with quality measurement. Implementing eCQMs, however, often involves a significant time commitment for IT and quality improvement staff. “It’s not just something you turn on,” Shuemaker says.

Regulatory bodies such as CMS typically publish technical specifications for eCQMs, which detail how to electronically capture the data elements needed to calculate these measures. Vendors then issue software that providers can use to pull the data elements from the EHR and other IT systems. Many providers, however, run into data collection problems implementing eCQMs, and staff have to sleuth around to identify and fix the problems. For instance, an EHR field may need to be reconfigured or data may have to be extracted from free-text fields such as physician notes.

VCU Health is currently implementing 15 hospital eCQMs and continues to refine its EHR and data model to support additional eCQMs. Like many EHRs, VCU Health’s system was primarily designed to serve as an electronic version of the patient record and was not built to support data collection and reporting. “Because of how the EHR is structured, it’s not conducive to getting data out, says Shuemaker. “We’re having to rework and tighten our EHR processes so that data can be pulled easier.”

At Novant, patients are also helping to automate some data collection. Before their outpatient appointments, patients check in online via the health system’s patient portal and fill out questionnaires that are used to update their medical records. Some questions are tied directly to quality metrics. For instance, the questionnaire asks patients to update their immunizations.

“We try to have patients participate in their care as much as possible, and this team approach to data collection helps free up our nurses and physicians so they can spend more face time with patients,” says Capps. 

Measuring for population health

A few years ago, Community Healthcare System formed a clinically integrated network, Community Healthcare Partners, with affiliated physicians to collaborate on population health initiatives and negotiate value-based contracts with commercial insurers. Now that Community Healthcare System has implemented care management for at-risk patients and developed other key capabilities, the organization is applying to become a Medicare ACO Track 1+, which is a new Advanced APM launching in January.

As a Medicare ACO, Community Healthcare System will need to begin reporting on a set of ACO quality metrics to CMS. Intended to improve outcomes and lower costs for Medicare populations, these metrics focus on coordinating care across sites, managing care for complex conditions and other goals.

Community Healthcare System is already collecting data on many of these ACO measures, but one big hurdle remains: Some physician practices in the ACO have an out-of-date EHR or no EHR at all and cannot electronically share the quality data. “About 75 percent of our providers should be linked electronically by the end of the year, but that still leaves about 25 percent,” Kumar says.

The issue of interoperability is a major challenge for hospitals and health networks looking to interface with physicians and others around population health. Community Healthcare System is ahead of most health networks. Its three hospitals share a fully integrated EHR, and the health system invested in a private health care information exchange, or HIE, so affiliated physicians could connect their EHRs. The HIE is a centralized data warehouse that aggregates information from hospital and physician practice EHRs, as well as outside laboratories and a statewide HIE.

“Our physicians have access to all this aggregated data in one place so they can obtain a more complete picture of what’s going on with their patients, which helps them provide better care,” Kumar says. “Some physicians don’t even realize that the HIE is working in tandem with their EHR. It’s fully integrated so they do not have to log in to a separate system or type in patient identifiers.”

To help the physician practices that do not have a compatible EHR participate in the ACO, Community Healthcare System has negotiated agreements with a few EHR vendors to assist the practices in obtaining certified EHRs at a discount. 

Continuously improving quality measurement

As quality measurement evolves, a graduated approach will be key, Burstin says. “We’re very much in a transition stage. Some things we try may not work, others may work well. What's important is the ability to understand the results of those trials. What did we learn, and how can we apply those learnings?” 

The next five to 10 years promise many learning opportunities. One key question is whether current quality metrics support the transition to population health, which requires care to be coordinated across care sites. “We have mostly been assessing quality on a visit-based manner, or ‘Did this happen during this visit or admission?’” Burstin says. “In a model of care that is less visit-based and focuses on value over volume, we logically need to assess quality in different ways.”

Looking to the future, Capps hopes that quality measurement will continue to evolve to provide clinicians with a real-time, 360-degree view of their patients. This will require sophisticated, interoperable IT solutions that can integrate and analyze claims data, EHR information, patient-reported information and other data sources. “I’m most interested in how we can use all of this measurement to drive quality at the point of care and help providers leverage this data to take better care of people,” Capps says. — Maggie Van Dyke is a contributing editor at Hospitals & Health Networks.