updated 4/22/2008 4:47:50 PM ET 2008-04-22T20:47:50

What do former patients think about the care they received at your local hospitals? The government wants to make it easier for you to find out.

Federal health officials in recent years have made a great effort to improve transparency in health care. But measuring how well hospitals do their job can be technical. New patient satisfaction scores, which went online Friday, cover basic premises that just about every hospital patient and their family members can understand.

For example:

  • Did doctors treat patients with courtesy and respect?
  • How often were the room and bathroom cleaned?
  • Was the area around the room quiet?
  • Did the patient get immediate help after pressing a call button?

Those questions were included in a survey used to evaluate more than 2,500 hospitals around the country.

"You don't have to be a technical expert to understand this information and its implications," said Joyce Dubow, senior adviser at the AARP, the senior advocacy group. "If you ask somebody whether they were cared for with respect, they get that."

Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt said consumers — and the Medicare program — pay for care whether it's good or not. Informing consumers about how well a hospital performs a particular task or how much it charges for a particular service will serve as incentives for health care providers to do better.

"The current sector is all about volume," Leavitt said. "The future is about value."

Compare up to three hospitals
The government's website lets consumers compare up to three hospitals. Users will be able to see the scores for such things as how often nurses communicated well with their patients. The average score for all hospitals reporting in the United States was 73 percent.

The data was collected by hospitals from a random sample of patients from October 2006 and June 2007. The government led development of the survey, which was administered 48 hours to six weeks after the patients were discharged.

Federal officials said they recognize that patients needing emergency care won't use the comparison Web site, nor should they. However, more than 60 percent of all patients go to a hospital for elective procedures.

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"Ultimately, this tool benefits everyone," said Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association. "It helps consumers and patients find out how often a hospital provides certain aspects of care while allowing hospitals to focus care improvement efforts on areas where patients feel it is most needed."

Overall, federal officials said rural hospitals seemed to fare better than urban ones when it came several measures of patient satisfaction.

"I think that has to do with rural hospitals being more of a fabric of the community in rural areas," said Herb Kuhn, acting deputy administrator at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Few consumers actually compare care
Officials acknowledge that few consumers compare quality information about insurance plans, hospitals and other providers to make decisions about their care. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey estimated that fewer than one in five patients did. However, that's an increase from 12 percent in 2000.

Leavitt acknowledged that efforts to evaluate the quality of health care are lacking. He likened the current situation to the earliest of video games, a table tennis game called Pong.

"We're not very good at this, but we're making a lot of progress," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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