I live in a metropolitan area with several renowned academic medical centers and high-quality community hospitals. When my mother was diagnosed with leukemia, she received top-notch care at a local university hospital’s cancer center. My father had open heart surgery at a facility with an award-winning cardiac surgery department. There’s a peace of mind associated with the knowledge that, if faced with serious health challenges, my family and I have several options where we can receive quality care. However, I am not saying I live in health care paradise. We were routinely disappointed by the care provided by a community hospital near my dad’s home. Because it was the closest hospital, he often ended up there after calling 911 for chest pain. There were few specialists available and it seemed they just couldn’t effectively care for his multiple medical problems. My sister (a nurse and hospital executive) and I would take turns visiting our dad, advocating for the care he needed, and facilitating transfer when necessary. But what if you don’t have a medical background and have no idea how to evaluate your local hospital?

Because hospitals are associated with emergencies, the thought of evaluating and choosing a hospital may seem preposterous. Of course, when there is a medical emergency you need to go to the nearest hospital. If the facility does not have the resources to manage your condition, you will likely be transferred after you are stabilized.

There are times, however, when you should consider choosing the hospital where you will receive care. A few examples include:

1) If you’ve been diagnosed with a rare or very serious disease,

2) If you need elective (non-emergent) surgery,

3) If your health insurance has preferred facilities,

4) When you want your care to be provided by a particular physician.

If you have a chronic, rare, or serious condition or need specialized surgery, you will want to research your local hospital to determine their level of experience with that disease or procedure. Hospitals are typically best at the things they do most frequently. There can also be financial implications associated with hospital choice. Depending on your health insurance plan, getting non-emergent care at a non-preferred facility may come at a significant cost. If you are followed by a specialist and need to be hospitalized, it will be important to go to a facility where your doctor has privileges (credentials that allow a doctor to care for patients in a hospital).

Excluding the above considerations, the most important factors to consider when choosing a hospital are safety and quality. There are several sources for this information. The Joint Commission is a nonprofit organization that inspects and accredits U.S. hospitals. You can search their website to see if your local hospital has earned The Joint Commission’s Gold Seal of Approval. Hospital Compare was created by the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) in collaboration with several other health care organizations. This web-based resource provides information about the quality of Medicare-certified hospitals across the country. In addition to quality data, you can see information about how patients rated their experiences. You can search by hospital name, city, county, state, or zip code. You can then refine your search by medical condition or procedure to see how hospitals stack up against each other. The Leap Frog Group is a non-profit employer-advocacy group that collects information regarding safety, quality, and efficiency for over 1000 U.S. hospitals. They compile this information to create a Hospital Safety Grade, making it easy to compare multiple facilities.

Hospitals are not created equally. There can be dramatic differences in quality, safety, and patient experience. When you need to be hospitalized for care that is not emergent, it is important to research your local facilities to increase the likelihood of receiving excellent care. When you have a choice, do what you can to make the best one possible.


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