July 12, 2002 -- For the 12th year in a row, Johns Hopkins University tops the list of the nation's premier hospitals, as determined by the annual U.S. News and World Report ranking of "America's Best Hospitals."
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., The Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles rounded out the list's top five institutions.
The magazine also ranks the top institutions in 17 different specialty areas ranging from cancer to urology.
In compiling the list, researchers combined data on the hospital's reputation among doctors within each specialty, death rates, and other factors such as the number of registered nurses per bed, access to the latest technology, and volume of patients.
But what does it mean to be the best in providing services that most people hope they never have to use?
Toby Gordon, vice president of planning and marketing for Johns Hopkins Medicine, says 75% of their patients come from the Baltimore area, and these rankings really mean more to people who are seeking treatment for very serious or rare conditions.
"It helps make people more savvy healthcare consumers," Gordon tells WebMD. "Historically, patients just went where their doctors told them to go. But over time, these rankings help people tune into the fact that there are highly trained specialists who can treat their problem."
John Clough, MD, director of health affairs at The Cleveland Clinic, says these types of rankings are most useful in providing information for people who need care for complex conditions, such as cancer or heart disease, where the skill of the doctor can make a difference.
"If it's a once-in-a-lifetime procedure, and it's got to be done right, you might want to travel a bit farther [to a top-ranked institution] to get it done," Clough tells WebMD. "But traveling to Cleveland to get your tonsils out doesn't make much sense."
In addition, several recent studies have shown that hospitals that see more patients tend to do better in performing certain types of surgery.
"Practice makes perfect," says Clough. "In surgery, people who do it more often tend to do better."
He says the list raises the profile of the hospitals included and brings a steady stream of out-of-town as well as international patients. But that doesn't necessarily make the hospitals more exclusive or harder to get into.
Clough says The Cleveland Clinic, like many other institutions included on the list, is constantly expanding to meet the growing demand for its services. In fact, it's building a new cardiac care facility to accommodate the rising number of heart patients that come in for treatment, thanks to the institution's No. 1 ranking in the heart and heart surgery specialty area.
If you've got a computer, getting access to one of these hospitals can be just a phone call away. Most major hospitals provide phone numbers on their web sites for making appointments with their physicians.
Insurance coverage for this type of care varies, of course, according to your provider's reimbursement limits and out-of-network coverage policies. But even if you don't have insurance coverage, many of the hospitals on the list provide millions of dollars a year in uncompensated care.
But even if you decide to stick closer to home for your medical care, there are steps you can take to insure you're getting the best possible care.
Clough says there is a lot more information available to patients, especially via the Internet. He recommends visiting a trusted site to research your condition and check to see if you're getting what's needed from your healthcare provider.
And don't be afraid to ask questions or talk with your doctor about your healthcare, says Clough. "An educated patient is the best asset there is."
Both Clough and Gordon point to the Internet as a valuable source of information on both medical conditions and the people who treat them.
"Patients need to be the best possible consumers and go on WebMD to know what questions to ask your healthcare provider," says Gordon. "Physicians are connected to each other. Call around and make sure you're seeing someone who's experienced in taking care of your problem."
And Clough says it's important to not be afraid to discuss your concerns with your physician. "An educated patient is the best asset there is," he says.