Once the painful attacks began occurring nearly every day, Michele Angelo knew it was time for gallbladder surgery.
Angelo, 69, had reason to be apprehensive. Three years earlier, the Colonia woman had problems with anesthesia during hip replacement surgery and developed arrhythmia. A friend was hit with two serious infections after breast cancer surgery. Then Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha died last February of complications from seemingly routine gallbladder surgery.
"I asked a surgeon about it. I said, 'Don't you think we should all know why?' "Angelo said.
To quell her fears, she consulted a new source of information about hospital safety on the website of the New Jersey Department of Health and Senior Services. Under a 2009 law, the department must reveal how many serious, preventable medical errors occur at 73 acute care hospitals in the state.
These errors are called patient safety indicators, or "never events," because they should never happen. They include leaving a foreign item in a patient; birth trauma; and postoperative hemorrhage, infection, hip fracture and lung injury.
Now consumers can find data on each never event and how often these errors occur at each hospital.
Angelo looked up a table on the website with details about errors at her local hospital in 2007, the most recent data available.
"Their error rate was not high in the areas I need to be concerned about, like infection," said Angelo, a retired human resources administrator. "I have to trust that things will work out."
The website also allows consumers to search by hospital, county or medical condition. "It didn't change my mind, but it did make me feel more comfortable about my choice," said Christel Packwood, a Rockaway resident who plans knee replacement surgery this summer.
People can also request information by calling 1-800-418-1397.
In general, New Jersey hospitals had better safety records than hospitals nationally. But they had higher error rates in two areas: postoperative infection and wound rupture. Individual hospitals vary widely. Cases of postoperative infection, for example, ranged from zero per 1,000 patients at one hospital to 50.9 per 1,000 at another.
Health department officials said their goal is to monitor hospital performance and eliminate errors.
"The spotlight is on them now. We expect improvement,"said Cynthia Kirchner, senior policy adviser in the Office of Health Care Quality Assessment.
She urges consumers to study the numbers and ask their doctors what they mean.
The New Jersey Hospital Association supports publication of the data. "We have long supported data reporting as a way for hospitals to assess their performance and use that information to continuously improve," said spokeswoman Kerry McKean Kelly.
People may be surprised to learn which hospitals have higher-than-average error rates, said Patricia Kelmar, associate director of advocacy for AARP New Jersey, which fought for public disclosure of the hospital errors.
"Just because a hospital has a big banner saying it's top-rated doesn't mean you shouldn't look at, say, its rate for pulmonary embolism," she said. "A lot of consumer satisfaction with hospitals has to do with things like food, or how often nurses showed up. Yes, that's part of the experience, but when it comes to life and death and surgery and you can choose where to go, it's worth taking a look at this."
Mary Jo Patterson is a freelance reporter based in New Jersey.