Before you make a big purchase, you probably do a lot of research. Is it the best product out there? How are the customer reviews? Picking the right hospital shouldn't be any different.
When you have an emergency, of course, it's a no-brainer -- you head to the nearest one. But for surgery that you schedule in advance, you can do your homework and handpick a place that's best for you.
"As consumers, we have to take in all the different sources," says Maulik S. Joshi, DrPH, associate executive vice president of the American Hospital Association. "Hospitals are becoming more and more transparent about their performance." So there's plenty of information out there to help you make the right choice.
Start by looking online, where there are a slew of web sites that measure and grade how well a hospital's doing. You'll find ones run by government agencies and private companies.
Plug in your zip code or a hospital name, and you instantly get detailed information. For instance, you'll learn things like:
Patient satisfaction. Are doctors good at managing pain? Do they explain things well?
Treatment. How often and quickly does the hospital take care of problems like heart attacks and blood clots?
Health complications. How often do patients get ones that could have been prevented?
Readmission rates. It's not an exact measure, but it can help you get a sense of how well patients are treated. For instance, if a lot of people need to go back to the hospital, it could be a sign that they're getting infections.
Special awards. It shows the hospital has high-quality care that's recognized by patients and health professionals.
Many of these things are helpful to look at no matter what type of surgery you're having. But don't forget to check how a hospital ranks on the specific type of operation you need, says Ahmed Elsayyad, chief executive officer of Elsayyad Medical Group, LLC, a health-care consulting group. "If you're planning to get knee surgery, look at the metrics under the hip/knee surgery tab."
Understand the Limits of Ratings
Scores are helpful, but they're not perfect. A recent study shows that results vary widely from web site to web site. A hospital may get high marks from one group but low ones from another.
Why the differences? First, they don't all measure the same thing. Second, the info they use to make the grades may be flawed. It may be out of date, for instance. So using ratings to judge a hospital's quality isn't always so straightforward. Certain things you just can't learn by numbers alone.
Get Your Doctor's Advice
Michelle Katz, author of Healthcare Made Easy, learned about hospital care firsthand when she went in for surgery. She says you can't always trust the ratings system. "I have other things that are more important to me, such as my physician's happiness at the facility."
Your doctor likely has a bird's-eye view. Take advantage. Show him the data you find online and see if he thinks it's accurate. Also ask him questions like these:
- Which hospitals do you work in?
- What do you like about each one?
- How's the staff?
- Which hospital would you choose for yourself if you were having this procedure done?
Don't forget to check other people's "reviews." What do friends, family, and people in your neighborhood say? If you have a long-term condition, Katz suggests you talk to people in a local support group who face the same problems as you. Where were they treated? What were their experiences like?
Get Insights From the Hospital
You can also learn more from the hospital itself. Look at the web site. Give them a call.
Get details about the nursing staff, such as how many hours they spend on each shift. "They're the ones who will take care of you," Katz says, "so talk to them."
Find out if it's a teaching hospital connected with a university. Katz says that most of those are active in research and have students who are curious. That's a good thing, she says, because it often beefs up collaboration with doctors, which means better care for you.
You don't have to visit each hospital you're considering, but it may give you a better feel for its quality. Look around. Is it clean? Is the staff courteous?
"Watch the body language of those you pass," Katz says. "Ask visitors or family members in the hall if they wouldn't mind being candid about their stay. If you're lucky enough to stop by the cafeteria and see a nurse or physician grabbing a quick bite, tap them on the shoulder. Ask about the facility and where the opportunities for improvement may be."
The last step is to weigh what you've found and make your decision. "There's a lot of info out there. You want to ask yourself, 'How do I put it all together to match what's important to me?'" Joshi says. "Care is always an art and a science. Connect it back to what's most important to you."