There are a growing number of efforts to compare the service quality of health care organizations on the basis of patient satisfaction data. Such efforts inevitably raise questions about the fairness of the comparisons. Fair comparisons presumably should not penalize (or reward) health care organizations for factors that influence satisfaction scores but are not within the control of managers or clinicians. On the basis of previous research, these factors might include the demographic characteristics of patients (eg, age) and the institutional characteristics (eg, size) of the health care organizations where care was received.
The goal of this study was to examine the extent to which a patient's satisfaction scores are related to both his/her demographic characteristics and the institutional characteristics of the health care organization where care was received.
We conducted an analysis of secondary data from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), US Department of Veterans Affairs. The database contained patient responses to self-administered satisfaction questionnaires and information about demographic characteristics. Additional data from VHA were obtained regarding the institutional characteristics of the hospitals where patients received their care.
Among demographic characteristics, age, health status, and race consistently had a statistically significant effect on satisfaction scores. Among the institutional characteristics, hospital size consistently had a significant effect on patient satisfaction scores.
Study results can be interpreted as justifying the need to adjust patient satisfaction scores for differences in patient population among health care organizations. However, from a policy perspective, such adjustments may ultimately create a disincentive for health care organizations to customize their care.