By Richard Kronick, Ph.D.
If you ask someone involved in health care what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) does, he or she could probably get pretty close to the answer—to protect the health and well-being of Americans. The National Institutes of Health? Conducts scientific studies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention? Fights diseases. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services? Provides public health insurance programs. But if you ask what the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality does, you are likely to get a blank stare, or perhaps more questions.“What purpose does it serve? Isn’t it just like one of these other agencies?” No, it is not. And this is why.
The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, or AHRQ, an agency within HHS, is the lead Federal agency charged with improving the safety and quality of America’s health care system. AHRQ produces evidence to help make sure that health care is safe, of the highest quality, and accessible, and tries to make sure that the evidence is understood and used. We’re a small agency with a huge mandate, and we do a lot.
What makes AHRQ unique is that we develop the knowledge, tools, and data to reduce serious patient safety problems in our hospitals, health care facilities, physician offices, pharmacies, and communities. For example, AHRQ’s research and how-to tools helped prevent 1.3 million medical errors, saved 50,000 lives, and avoided $12 billion in wasteful spending from 2010 to 2013. And that’s just one of our patient safety projects.
As I said, we’re small. So we work closely with stakeholders, including other Federal health agencies, to achieve these meaningful patient safety and quality improvements. For example, in conjunction with the Department of Defense, AHRQ developed a training program called TeamSTEPPS® for health care professionals to improve communication and teamwork skills, resulting in patient safety and quality improvements.
When New York City’s Health and Hospital Corporation (HHC) set a goal to measurably improve patient safety in its massive system, it used TeamSTEPPS®. Between 2012 and early 2014, catheter-related urinary tract infections dropped by 98 percent, and ventilator-associated pneumonia was eliminated in one unit at HHC’s Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center in the Bronx. Those are results that matter.
AHRQ also has shared the TeamSTEPPS® program with our colleagues at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, and they have disseminated the training program throughout the country to help improve the safety and quality of care for Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries.
AHRQ also funds innovative investigator-initiated research to identify new activities that can be used to improve quality and safety in health care. For example, AHRQ funded a telehealth model for training and supporting primary care clinicians in rural communities that has been adopted by the Veterans Health Administration as a tool for expanding access to high-quality care for veterans across the country. And through a series of research grants, AHRQ has developed toolkits to help hospitals re-engineer their discharge processes to reduce preventable readmissions. For example, a recent AHRQ case study at a Texas hospital found that 30-day readmission rates for patients with heart failure, acute myocardial infarction, and pneumonia fell from 26 percent to 15 percent within one year of implementing the toolkit.
Even the best research isn’t useful if it’s left sitting on a shelf. That’s why AHRQ also creates materials to teach and train health care systems and professionals to put research into practice. For example, AHRQ supported the development of a training module that is being used to prevent catheter-associated bloodstream infections and catheter-associated urinary tract infections. Hospitals that used these tools found that bloodstream infections fell by 41 percent, saving more than 500 lives and $34 million.
In addition, AHRQ generates measures and data that are widely used by hospitals and health care professionals to measure and improve quality of care, and by policymakers who evaluate the progress of the U.S. health system at the national, State, and local levels. AHRQ data recently helped highlight a sharp increase in hospitalizations for opioid overuse among Medicare, Medicaid, and private-pay patients. The data showed that hospitalization rates for opioid overuse more than doubled between 1993 and 2012, prompting HHS to launch a major initiative to reduce opioid abuse in 2015. This information is gleaned from the Nation’s largest database of hospital information that AHRQ has developed in partnership with individual States.
We’ve accomplished a lot, but there is much more work to be done. We’re working to reduce antibiotic overuse and resistance, further reduce health care-associated infections, and improve care for people with multiple chronic conditions, such as those who suffer from both heart disease and diabetes. Additionally, AHRQ helps facilitate clinical decisionmaking by incorporating the latest research findings into electronic health records, and we are discovering how to better provide opioid addiction treatment services in rural communities.
Our work today is making health care safer tomorrow. If you’d like to learn more about AHRQ’s initiatives and how the Agency is working to make health care safer, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, where we provide regular updates on our research activities and findings.
About the Author: Richard Kronick, Ph.D., is Director of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. This article was originally published on AHRQ Views Blog and is republished here with permission.