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What to look for when choosing a hospital

You may assume you would receive the same quality of medical care at any hospital, but the truth is, quality varies greatly from hospital to hospital. Preventable medical errors are the third-leading cause of death in the United States, which means it is essential to choose a high-quality hospital and physician for yourself and your family.

“Many people don’t realize that there is a wide variation in quality among hospitals across the United States,” says Leigh Hamby, M.D., chief medical officer, executive vice president and chief quality officer for Piedmont Healthcare. “There is a lot of published scientific evidence that shows patient outcomes vary even after correcting for age, comorbidities, acuity and severity of illness, for reasons that cannot be explained. That tells us the quality of each hospital is very different.”

Why hospital quality is important

A hospital that meets quality standards has processes in place to prevent:

  • Hospital-acquired infections

  • Medical errors

  • Surgical and other complications

When hospitals consistently adhere to evidence-based care protocols, they can decrease infection rates and increase survival rates.

“For example, it is scientifically proven that if you have a heart attack, you should be given aspirin as part of your treatment at the hospital. But getting hospitals to do this 100 percent of the time for every patient who requires it is not a given,” says Dr. Hamby.

“There are also evidence-based procedures your health care providers should perform to make sure you don’t get a hospital-acquired infection,” he adds. “For example, patients should observe caregivers washing their hands every time they come into the patient’s room. If patients are exposed to certain bacteria, they should be bathed with a certain type of soap.”

You have a choice in where you receive care

In the past, many people had insurance plans that required them to go to specific hospitals and physicians that were “in network.” Today, many people have copays and deductibles that require them to pay more out of pocket, but they also have more options for where they can receive medical care.

“You have a choice in where you receive care and as a financial necessity, you need to exercise that choice smartly,” says Dr. Hamby.

How to find a high-quality hospital

“Patients should compare the quality of the hospitals and physicians in their area,” he says. “And we need to build tools to help them do that. The challenge is there hasn’t been a lot of good information available about the quality of a physician practice or hospital. We are still early in the development of good quality metrics that are independent and reliable.”

Organizations like the Leapfrog Group rate hospitals based on their track record with keeping patients safe. They look at basic safety measures, such as handwashing, nurse qualifications and tracking a patient’s prescriptions in a computer system.

“One challenge is most patients evaluate the quality of the hospital not based on the technical aspects of quality, but factors like a nice lobby or friendly staff,” says Dr. Hamby. “Certainly, those are important aspects of care, but they don’t tell you if your physician has performed sufficient volumes of a procedure, if he or she is board-certified, or if the nurses have processes in place to ensure safe medical care.”

Why transparency matters

While some hospital patient safety data is automatically reported to government databases like the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), hospitals have the option of self-reporting other information to organizations like Leapfrog. When they report this data, they can also share how they are working to improve care.

“Piedmont self-reports a lot of data publicly that we are not required to report,” says Dr. Hamby. “Piedmont is leading the state in transparency – we have been self-reporting current quality and patient safety data on our website for more than 10 years.”

One way to find a high-quality hospital is to look to unbiased, third-party organizations that are transparent in how they rank hospitals.

“At Piedmont, we are dedicated to quality improvement and we use Leapfrog rankings as a good measure because their results are data-driven,” he says. “Leapfrog is open, honest and transparent in what evidence they use to determine a hospital’s quality ranking.”

Leapfrog shares how their scores are calculated and their quality measures are in alignment with federally funded programs like CMS and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ).

Piedmont’s patient safety initiatives

Piedmont researches and implements evidence-based protocols to ensure patient safety.

“We measure in real time the procedures our doctors and staff need to do to prevent hospital-acquired infections and other complications,” says Dr. Hamby. “These procedures are based on scientific evidence that shows they are proven to reduce infection rates, other complications and death.”

He notes that it is not conceivable to achieve 100 percent compliance with all procedures because there are legitimate reasons why safety protocols cannot be performed in certain situations, such as a patient refusing care.

The bottom line: “Just because a hospital has a good reputation, don’t assume the quality is there,” says Dr. Hamby. “Look for a hospital that can prove it has a good track record with quality and patient safety.”

Piedmont was recently recognized for quality by Leapfrog in its fall report, as six of the system’s hospitals received A grades, up from four in Leapfrog’s spring report. For the second consecutive report, Piedmont had more hospitals receive A grades than any other system in the state.

The hospitals that received A grades were Piedmont Atlanta, Piedmont Athens, Piedmont Mountainside, Piedmont Newnan, Piedmont Newton and Piedmont Columbus Northside Campus. To learn more about Leapfrog and hospital rankings in your area, visit The Leapfrog Group.