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Government ads to reveal hospital ratings

/ Source: The Associated Press

The federal government is spending nearly $1.9 million on newspaper ads around the country that disclose hospital satisfaction rates, part of a unique campaign to improve health care through the power of publicity.

The full-page ads will show for better or worse how patients rated more than 2,500 hospitals nationwide.

The ads feature two questions: The percentage of patients who always got help when they needed it. And the percentage of patients who got antibiotics one hour before surgery. The latter question reflects broad interest in curbing infections acquired at the hospital.

The ads reflect an emphasis by the Bush administration to increase transparency in the health care system. Officials say greater public disclosure of costs and quality will drive providers to improve on both fronts.

While some hospital administrators might not like being singled out, the industry supports the effort and helped craft the comparison questions. Patients will benefit because the information is educational and will lead to better care, said Charles Kahn, president of the Federation of American Hospitals.

"It's a twofer for the consumer and any efforts to promote it are useful," Kahn said.

The ads are running in 58 newspapers in 49 states. The lone exception was Delaware, but hospitals in that state will be cited in the Philadelphia newspapers.

Measuring quality of care

In the ads, the government will list the percentage of patients who always got help when they needed it, along with a statewide average. For example, in the District of Columbia, the percentage of patients who always got help when they needed it ranged from 41 percent at Sibley Memorial Hospital to 57 percent at Georgetown University Hospital. The average for the four hospitals in Washington was 49 percent.

Sheliah Roy, director of public relations and marketing at Sibley, noted that the information was provided voluntarily.

"We're being open because we do want to always improve the quality of care," she said.

Roy said the two measurements will be useful for consumers, but she stressed that the federal government has other data that gives a more complete picture of the quality of care.

"There's a lot more information consumers should look at when making decisions about where to look for care," Roy said.

Kerry Weems, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, agreed, but said the two measures in the ad were selected because they will get people's attention.

"Nobody wants to be treated like a number," Weems said. "Many hospitals provide good, quality, patient-centered care, and this is a pretty good measure of that."

Overall, there are 26 measurements of quality of care on the government's Web site.

The latest enhancement to the Web site was the inclusion of 10 questions measuring patient satisfaction.

Hundreds of hospitals did not release data measuring patient satisfaction but are expected to do so in the months ahead. The data was collected in October 2006 and June 2007 from a random sample of patients 48 hours to six weeks after discharge from a hospital.

Rich Umbdenstock, president and CEO of the American Hospital Association, said consumers shouldn't assume a problem if a hospital is not listed in the ads. He also urged consumers to go to the government's Web site to get a more complete picture of how their local hospitals fared.

The Department of Health and Human Services has spent large amounts of money on previous ad campaigns, including about $3.3 million in 2002 on a similar comparison effort for nursing homes. It also spent about $200 million alerting consumers to the new Medicare drug benefit and helping them enroll.