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Published: Saturday, 4/2/2005

Comparing the area hospitals? Data on tap via Internet, phone

BY LUKE SHOCKMAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - There are billboards, newspaper advertisements, and television commercials touting which hospital has the best doctors or highest quality, but federal officials here announced yesterday their attempt to give the public an idea of just how good their local hospitals are.

Using a Web site or toll-free telephone number, the public will be able to compare how well a hospital does in different key treatment areas.

The Web site is www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov, and the phone number is 1-800-633-4227.

Those curious about how well their hospital does in treating heart failure or pneumonia patients, for example, can log on to their computers and check their local hospital's performance.

"There's clear evidence that better performance on these measurements means betterquality care," said Dr. Mark McClellan, director of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

The federal effort is a collaboration with the American Hospital Association and other private organizations and is referred to as Hospital Compare. It was announced yesterday in Chapel Hill during the annual meeting of the Association of Health Care Journalists. The program is being spearheaded by the CMS, the federal agency that runs the Medicare program.

The effort is similar to a CMS program begun in 2002 and still ongoing known as Nursing Home Compare. Like Hospital Compare, the public can compare the quality of nursing homes based on key indicators.

Though supportive of Hospital Compare, hospital officials caution the public not to use it as the only resource when choosing hospitals.

"I think the key thing for consumers to keep in mind is that this is a good resource. However, it's not the only resource," said Tiffany Himmelreich, spokesman for the Ohio Hospital Association. "We really encourage patients to look at the quality data in addition to talking to their doctors, friends, and family and double checking insurance coverage to make sure the hospital they decide to go to is covered by insurance."

Dick Davidson, president of the American Hospital Association, hopes the new comparisons will prod all hospitals to do a better job. After all, he said no hospital wants the public to learn it's doing poorly compared to a competitor.

"Any hospital not looking at this and seeing where they stand would be foolish," Mr. Davidson said.

Charla Ulrich, director of quality and infection control at St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center in Toledo, said the Hospital Compare information is good but has some weaknesses.

"It's not as simple as looking at the data and saying, 'This is a good or bad hospital,' " she said.

For example, no long-term health outcomes are reported. It's one thing to know how well a hospital does treating a heart patient in the hospital, but some health-outcome experts are more interested in how well a hospital's patients do a month or more after being discharged.

Another quality indicator will measure whether heart attack patients are offered aspirin - widely agreed as a cheap and effective treatment - to patients after arriving at a hospital. But the outcome only measures if hospitals are offered aspirin within 24 hours, when what would be more valuable is how quickly patients get aspirin, Ms. Ulrich said.

She said patients should still talk to their doctor, nurse, or friends and family for advice on hospitals.

Dr. Alice Petrulis, medical director of Ohio KePro, Ohio's Medicare Quality Improvement Organization, said Hospital Compare has limitations but is still valuable.

"It's just another tool to use in evaluating providers. It's like buying a car - you don't just use Consumer Reports, but you still need guides like that," she said.

Contact Luke Shockman at:

lshockman@theblade.com

or 419-724-6084.



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