Consider source when reporting hospital rankings

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

HealthGrades, a health care ratings company, has released a report (PDF) that says “Medicare patients treated at top-rated hospitals nationwide across the most common Medicare diagnoses and procedures are 27 percent less likely to die, on average, than those admitted to all other hospitals.”

The report also names the hospitals that HealthGrades has deemed “Distinguished Hospitals for Clinical Excellence.”

That study (PDF) and the designations for hospitals are prompting a number of news articles reporting that local hospitals have been named as “top hospitals.”

But there are some things to think about when examining hospital rankings. For one thing, hospitals pay HealthGrades to use its information as promotional material. In addition, the data HealthGrades uses can be out of date and is based only on Medicare patients. A 2002 review found that “ratings on individual hospitals were often misleading.”

Charles Ornstein of ProPublica wrote a thorough tip sheet about how to cover your local hospital, including information about HealthGrades and other hospital rankings.

For a more balanced comparison of local hospitals, consider using the Hospital Compare patient survey data from the Department of Health and Human Services. AHCJ has made it easier for journalists to compare hospitals in their regions by generating spreadsheet files from the HHS database, allowing members to compare more than a few hospitals at a time, using spreadsheet or database software.

AHCJ provides key documentation and explanatory material to help you understand the data possibilities and limits. Need help analyzing Excel files? AHCJ offers a tutorial about investigating health data using spreadsheets.

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