US News and World Reports' (USNWR) annual hospital ranking, akin to their notorious college rankings, is kind of the king of the block for these types of rankings. Keep in mind though, there are hospitals on some of those lists that patients in some of those cities (and even some doctors who work in those hospitals) won't take their dog to, particularly in some urban teaching hospitals. (And No, I'm not naming names!)
The "leapfrog study" indexed by USNWR for rankings reviewed available data from nearly 1300 hospitals and ranked hospitals largely (as I understand it)on 4 endpoints
1. Having intensive care units staffed by specially trained doctors
2. Having computerized order-entry systems for medications and other orders with error-prevention measures
3. Performing procedures such as cardiac catheterization and caring for certain high-risk neonatal conditions
4. Having practices such as those designed to control hospital-related infections and cut down on medication and treatment errors.
It's hard to argue in theory that these are bad goals, but are these the things that patients need/want and is the information we're using to assess it accurate. A number of high profile institutions are typically included on these list which can make some doctors chuckle.
I saw an interesting editorial in the journal, Contemporary Surgery,a commentary on how confusing or misleading it is to try and figure out which hospitals, programs, or physicians are "the best". A quick review of a number of consumer oriented web sites provide significant inconsistencies -- for example, with colon resections for cancer, one hospital was ranked best by two sites but worst by the other site, and the hospital ranked best on that site was ranked worst on another, in a study reported in the journal, Archives of Surgery. Why is this so? There is no standard way of calculating quality differences, thus different sources (despite good intentions)come up with different results for the same hospitals
"What makes the 2007 Toyota Camry Motor Trend’s Car of the Year? Who decides who should be ranked number 1 in college football? Which tastes better: Coke or Pepsi? More importantly, is your hospital any good, and are you any good?...Ask patients to weigh in on their surgical experience or hospital care and you might be surprised to find out what they want (free parking). Or, what they don’t care about (board certification)."
Sites like Healthgrade, purport to offer patients some objective criteria for making comparisons between hospitals. This site ranks hospitals, surgery centers, and nursing homes based on data generated from Medicare records. Hospital rankings are based on 13 AHRQ (Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality) categories that include: decubitus ulcers, death in low mortality DRGs, postoperative hip fracture, and postoperative PE or DVT among others. The rankings are “calculated” by 100 employees in Golden, CO, using Medicare data that hospitals supply. Repeat: your very own hospital supplies the data!
If you want to get an even more confusing way to look at healthcare, you can also check out a site like Vimo.com which purports to give consumers (err......) patients comparisons for the cost of surgical procedures. As most of those numbers represent "funny money" (ie. neither the feds, hospitals, nor insurers expect to pay these imaginary numbers).