Are hospital ratings reliable?

June 9, 2015 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn
Are hospital ratings reliable

There are a growing number of websites and publications that rate hospitals, from the annual U.S. News and World Report list of best hospitals and Medicare’s Hospital Compare site to HealthGrades, Hospital Safety Score and Consumer Reports. But is it wise to base your decision on where to receive medical care or undergo surgery on these ratings?

One of the main issues to understand is that these sites and publications often measure very different aspects of hospital care. Some are based on surveys and focus on patient’s reports of what their experience with the hospital was like. Others are based on measuring how well patients do after treatment. Others focus on patient safety, including deaths, infection rates, and readmissions to the hospital. Some sites focus solely on the cost of care. In addition, getting a high rating is a fairly common occurrence as the number of ratings lists grows. In fact, an analysis by Kaiser Health News found that approximately a third of hospitals in the U.S. won at least one award from one of the major rating groups or companies.

The data that hospital ratings are based on frequently comes from different sources, some that are quite subjective, which has a tremendous effect on how reliable the ratings are. While a patient may report having a positive experience at a hospital when completing an online questionnaire about his or her hospital stay, that does not necessarily translate into the hospital providing the safest, most appropriate care.

Another issue to bear in mind is the fact that some ratings organizations charge hospitals a licensing fee to use their ratings in marketing and advertising. While that does not influence which hospitals receive the awards, it can mean that a hospital has gotten high marks on all ratings criteria, but chooses not to pay to use the award in its marketing. In effect, if you’re basing your choice of hospitals on ratings list, you wouldn’t even consider this hospital, which offers care that met the same standards.

You need a bigger picture to make an informed decision

While some types of ratings, for example those that are based on patient safety, can be helpful when deciding which hospital to choose, you need more comprehensive information that’s objective and evidence-based to make an informed decision. You can find useful information from independent, third-party organizations such as the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), a not-for-profit organization that evaluates and accredits more than 15,000 health care organizations and programs in the US on a voluntary basis. A health advisor can also provide you with information about what hospitals have the experience, expertise and resources you need for the particular surgery you’re scheduled to undergo or health problem you’ve been diagnosed with.

Gathering objective information about the safety and quality of care provided by any hospital where you’re considering receiving care is one of the steps in becoming a more active partner in your healthcare, which can have a positive impact on the outcome of your care.