Variations in quality of care persist despite an increased understanding of optimal practice and an improved ability to monitor outcomes. The reporting of hospital standardized mortality ratios (HSMRs) is an important step in highlighting the need to improve quality; but, as with most measures, the HSMR is not without flaws. Intense debate in the United Kingdom and the United States, and now here in Canada, has focused too much on the shortcomings of this measure and not enough on the issue at hand. The Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care - assuming our commitment to steward the healthcare system - embraces the themes of transparency and accountability as key tools in focusing attention on system performance and quality. The analysis of HSMRs in Ontario has indicated limitations to its interpretation, similar to those observed in the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. The HSMR may not be a specific measure of adverse events, but this does not negate its usefulness in tracking the impact of quality improvement initiatives over time; it may be considered a valuable tool among a suite of indicators. In light of this, there is an opportunity to develop better statistics, including better data and measurement frameworks, and to educate the public to facilitate accurate interpretation, which will drive improvements in practice, quality and patients' experiences.
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