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How to Choose the Best Hospital for You

Do Your Homework Ahead of Time to Keep Yourself Safe and Comfortable

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Updated November 27, 2011

While a hospital visit isn't always a planned event, sometimes we do have the opportunity to make a choice of which hospital we prefer for an upcoming test or treatment. With dangers lurking in the form of hospital acquired infections, plus the increases in medical errors taking place in hospitals, a smart patient will do what she can to choose the best hospital.

Begin with a master list of hospitals in your area, or ones that treat whatever your medical problem is. For example, if you need a heart bypass, you may learn that a smaller hospital doesn't offer that service. It may not have the best equipment, or none of its surgeons may specialize in heart bypass surgery.

Next, begin whittling down the remaining list:

Which Comes First - the Doctor or Your Insurance?

Your hospital choice may be limited by either your choice of doctor or your insurer/payer or both. You'll want to check in with both before committing to which hospital you'll use.

Look on your insurer's or payer's website, or call their customer service number and ask what hospitals in your area are covered.

If you have already chosen which doctor will treat you, then you'll need to find out what hospitals he or she is affiliated with. Doctors call that having "admitting privileges" -- they have an agreement with the hospital that they may admit patients there.

Those two discussions, one with your insurer, one with your doctor, will tell you which hospitals on your original list may still be considered, or which ones are not options for you.

Hospital Transparency - What is the Hospital's Track Record?

Many states are beginning to issue "hospital report cards" or profiles that assess the safety of hospitals based on infection rates and surgical errors. You will want to check with your state's health department to see if this information is available. If so, review each hospital on your list to determine whether it is worthy of staying on your list based on previous patient outcomes.

One of the best resources for hospital patient safety and satisfaction information comes from the federal government's Hospital Compare website. Maintained by the Department of Health and Human Services, Hospital Compare lets you review patient's opinions and experiences for everything from communications to pain levels.

HospitalCompare's source for its ratings and opinions are patient experience surveys that are issued by Medicare and are used to assess the quality of care provided by hospitals. (Once you get home from the hospital, you may be asked to fill out a patient satisfaction survey, too.)

For all hospitals you may still be considering, use the following guidelines to help you choose the right one for you. You may need to call the hospital, ask a friend who has been treated there before, or even visit someone who's staying there now to get some of these answers:

Is this hospital:

  • accredited by the Joint Commission, meaning it meets patient safety and quality standards?

  • conveniently located for you and for those who will visit you?

  • willing to allow an advocate to stay by your bedside 24/7?

  • clean and comfortable?

  • able to offer private rooms (if that's important to you)?

A few final words of warning:

Be sure to ask your doctor what role he or she will play in your care while you stay at the hospital. Many hospitals now employ specialists who work only in hospitals, and do not have another, outside practice. These hospitalists, proceduralists and others actually replace the patient's doctor. You'll want to know if that will happen to you.

There are websites that allow patients to rate hospitals. You can find limited information from these sites, provided by people who were angry or for some reason dissatisfied with their outcomes. Just like the cautions for doctor's ratings websites, take this information with a grain of salt.

Regardless of what hospital you go to, or how long you are there, be on guard to keep yourself safe, no matter how stellar that hospital's track record is. Be familiar with the list of hospital never events, and the steps you can take to protect yourself from infections, drug errors and others.

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