Penn State course using Community Checkup to show consumer choices in health care

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Penn State course using Community Checkup to show consumer choices in health care

Jocelyn Vanderbrink, MHA

When we heard that Jocelyn Vanderbrink, MHA, a faculty member at Penn State, uses the Community Checkup website as part of a course she teaches on consumer choices in health care, we were excited to learn more. She shared with us her thoughts on the challenges facing today’s health care consumer and how she incorporates the Community Checkup into her course. Please read on to learn more, and thank you to Jocelyn for sharing your insights with us!

Please tell us about the course you teach on consumer choices in health care and what its goals are.

Health Policy and Administration (HPA) 057: Consumer Choices in Health Care is a general education course open to all Penn State students. Its primary goal is to give students the tools they need to become knowledgeable health care consumers.

The course is taught at multiple residential locations (campuses) as well as online through Penn State’s World Campus. I am the author and instructor of the online version and worked with an instructional design team to devise several assignments in which students utilize an active learning approach: gathering information, critically analyzing and synthesizing that information, then using it to make (hypothetical) health care choices. Additionally, some assignments employ collaborative learning, giving students the opportunity to discuss their own unique views and what is important to them as individual health care consumers.

What do you find are the greatest challenges for today’s health care consumer?

Health care is an incredibly complex industry. It often operates behind closed curtains – figuratively and literally – and has its own language that is full of jargon and a thousand acronyms. It is extraordinarily difficult to understand one’s medical bills, what is covered by one’s insurance and what care costs. Furthermore, consumers are bombarded with information, yet at the same time finding reliable information can be challenging.

As our country grapples with national health reform, it is more important than ever for consumers to understand how the health care system operates and how they, as an individual consumer, can impact their care and the system as a whole.

How did you discover the Community Checkup website?

While authoring the online version of Consumer Choices in Health Care, I was participating in an evaluation of the Aligning Forces for Quality (AF4Q) program which was coordinated through the Center for Health Care and Policy Research at Penn State and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. As part of the evaluation, I had the opportunity to study seventeen multi-stakeholder alliances across the country. One of those alliances was the Washington Health Alliance and one of the components of our evaluation was to examine alliances’ efforts to measure and publicly report on provider performance.

This research made me recognize the importance of exposing students to state and regional reports, such as the Community Checkup, in addition to national websites such as Hospital Compare (via the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services) and reports developed by the National Committee for Quality Assurance (NCQA).

How do you and your students use the Community Checkup in your class?

The scenario for one activity students complete is relocating to the Puget Sound area and needing to quickly establish a relationship with a primary care physician because they have diabetes. Students use online sources to collect defined data points on several physicians and the clinics in which they practice. In particular, students view the Community Checkup to research diabetes care and patient experience measures. At the end of the activity, students select a provider based off of the information they collected and reflect on what information was most important to them in their decision making.

How does your class react to the Community Checkup once they start using it?

Overall, students state that prior to the physician selection activity they were only familiar with websites where consumers rate providers and did not know that unbiased reports on clinical measures and patient experience was available – free of charge!

At a more nuanced level, student reaction varies based on their chosen career path:

  • Students who are majoring in health policy and administration are eager to use a current industry report and to see first-hand how transparency can be used as a tool to improve the health care system.
  • Students with clinical career paths appreciate learning that one day consumers might use clinical care and patient experience measures to select them as a provider.
  • Students looking to enter careers in human resources or management are excited to know websites such as Community Checkup exist so that they can pass these resources onto employees.

What advice do you give to health care consumers?

Be informed, ask questions and advocate:

  • You have the right to be informed about your health and care.
  • Ask questions and be an active member of your health care team. It may be useful to write down your questions prior to a health care appointment so you are sure to ask all of them or to take someone with you to your appointment.
  • If you have been admitted to the hospital, be sure you understand how to take care of yourself at home and what follow-up appointments you have.
  • Learn about any conditions you may have and how these conditions should be treated and monitored. If your treatments/monitoring deviate from standard practice, ask why.
  • Do your research when selecting providers and health plans. They are not created equal.
  • Advocate for what is best for you.


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