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Consumer Reports' Hospital Surgery Rankings Get Skeptical Reception
08/01/2013   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

What has recently become an endless number of reports and rankings for hospitals now has a newcomer to the mix: Consumer Reports. Today the company released its first-ever surgery safety ratings for more than 2,400 hospitals across the U.S. including several in Maine. While the reports have some surpising results, some question how helpful they are for consumers. Patty Wight has more.

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To create the surgery ratings, Consumer Reports examined how well Medicare patients fare both during and after surgery. The findings were based on two different factors from 2009-2011: the percentage of Medicare patients undergoing surgery who died in the hospital, and those who stayed longer than expected.

Consumer Reports' Doris Peter says one surprising take-away is that, often, it's not the big name urban hospitals that score highest - it's rural hospitals.

"That was surprising to us, because we had hired people to criticize our method, to try to take it apart," Peter says. "And they warned us - this method could be harmful to rural hospitals. It could make them look worse, because rural hospitals have a harder time discharging patients. And it turns out that's not how they look on these scores."

In Maine, for example, St. Mary's Hospital in Lewiston ranked the highest in the state, while Mercy Hospital in Portland ranked the lowest. Landing in the middle were Maine Medical Center in Portland and Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor.

Peter says it's unclear why rural hospitals tend to score better for surgical procedures, though it could be that those hospitals may specialize more, which often creates better outcomes. But all this data raises the question: How are consumers are supposed to use this?

"This particular report looks at elective surgeries, because we thought that we would focus on something where people have a chance to plan ahead a little bit," Peter says.

But Sandra Parker, vice president of the Maine Hospital Association says creating another rating du jour isn't very helpful, especially one that evaluates such a narrow band of services.

"I think it is another piece of the puzzle, and consumers can try to put those pieces together and form a picture," Parker says, "although it's very conflicting and confusing to see your community hospital at the top of one list one day and at the bottom of another list the next day."

That's a sentiment Dr. Ashish Jha, a professor of Health Policy at the Harvard School of Public Health shares. He had this response when asked if he had checked out the new Consumer Report surgery rating. "I have," he sighs, "and I'm somewhat perplexed by it."

He's perplexed that many hospitals that are considered top notch are ranked toward the bottom. Jha says the one bright side to yet another ranking is that it may encourage hosptials to give better information to consumers.

"So I'm still hearing from a lot of hospitals a real focus on arguing and fighting about why the current ratings are not so good," Jha says. "I keep hoping that instead of having that fight, hosptials will get motivated to put out better data and to become more transparent and open."

In the meantime, Jha says, if you want to know where to go for surgery, use this criteria: Go with a hosptial - and surgeon - with a lot of experience.


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