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Selecting the Right Hospital for You

When you know a hospital stay is in your future, it's smart to do some research first

Doing a little homework before you choose a hospital can do more than give you peace of mind. Choosing a hospital that scores well on quality can make it easier — and safer — for a patient to recover from a serious event, like having heart surgery, or a more routine one, like having a baby.

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As a physician, let me emphasize that if you need emergency hospital care, go to the closest hospital. But if you aren’t facing an emergency, take time to do some research.

The good news is that there is a lot of information to help you make an educated choice about which hospital to use. But to get the most complete picture of the best hospital for your needs, it’s helpful to check several resources. It’s also a good idea to ask your doctor and your friends for their advice and why they prefer Hospital A over Hospital B.

To get an overall view of quality, you might start by reviewing hospital “report cards” that private groups produce. Hospital “grades” are based on different measures, and each group emphasizes some over others. For example, some grade hospitals on what doctors think of them, how many hospitals use computers to order drugs, and how well patients recover from different kinds of surgeries.

One downside to these report cards is that hospitals are not required to participate in them. This could mean there are no data about a specific hospital. Another problem is they often use data that are several years old. If you have already picked a hospital based on your insurance plan or your doctor’s advice, you can find out more about its overall quality of care. You can also find out how well it compares with other hospitals in your area.

The federal government has a useful source of information on hospital quality. The Hospital Compare website lets you find out how well hospitals care for adult patients with certain conditions. The vast majority of hospitals — about 90 percent — report their data on quality of care. Even if you are not covered by Medicare, this information can help you compare the quality of care that hospitals provide.
  • See how often a hospital gives the right treatments for certain conditions — like heart attacks, heart failure, and pneumonia — or procedures — like preventing surgical infections.
  • View the results of care or treatment for certain conditions or procedures.
  • See how much Medicare paid hospitals for certain conditions and procedures.
  • Find out what hospital patients said about the care they received during a recent hospital stay. Their experiences are an important part of good quality care. Feedback from patients to more than two dozen questions is currently available.
My agency, the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, developed the survey that asked patients about their hospital experiences. We also put together a checklist of questions that you can use to help you find a good hospital. These questions can also help you decide if you need more information. (AHRQ also has an interactive checklist of questions you may want to ask your doctor.)

The Joint Commission’s Quality Check website also lets you search for information on any hospital in the United States. This is a national, nonprofit organization that “accredits” hospitals to make sure they fully comply with all of the group’s quality standards. The Quality Check website can tell you whether a hospital is accredited and will identify hospitals that have not met quality standards. In addition, you can:
  • Find out the hospital’s quality performance from previous years.
  • Learn whether the hospital offers certified programs in specific disease areas, such as stroke care.
  • Get data on the hospital’s National Quality Improvement Goals. This tells you about the quality of care for several specific conditions, including children’s asthma, heart attack and heart failure, pneumonia, pregnancy, and preventing surgical infections.  
Measuring hospital quality isn’t a perfect science. But we have a lot of information today to help you make an educated decision. That’s the best decision for your peace of mind — and for your health.

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Carolyn M. Clancy is a general internist and researcher, and the "Finding Your Way" columnist for AARP's Bulletin. As the director of the U.S. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality she is an expert about how consumers can engage in their health care. 

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