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Checking up on your local hospitals’ quality of care

Charles Ornstein, ProPublica reporter; freelancer Judy Quittman

ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein talks with freelancer Judy Quittman.

ORLANDO — Hospitals are among the largest businesses in some communities, but they often get a pass when it comes to how well they are serving their customers — the patients in your area who use them.

Government data that have become available within the last few years enable journalists to compare hospitals’ track records on patient survival and patient satisfaction, according to ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein, who spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. He was a Pulitzer finalist for ProPublica in 2010 for a series with Tracy Weber called, When Caregivers Harm: California’s Unwatched Nurses.”

He won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2005, again with Weber, for a Los Angeles Times series about the troubles at King/Drew hospital.

Patient survival

The Hospital Compare website, run by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has information by hospital on patient-survival rates for heart failure, heart attack and pneumonia.

Ornstein directed reporters to Hospital Compare, run by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It includes information on whether patients died or had to be readmitted within 30 days of being treated at a hospital for heart failure, heart attack and pneumonia.

After the data are adjusted to take into account the severity of patients’ illnesses, hospitals are rated as expected, better than expected or lower than expected. Ornstein said that the vast majority of hospitals fall in the expected category, so any hospitals that are outliers are worth talking to.

Patient satisfaction

In surveys, patients rate their overall hospital experience and also say whether they would recommend the hospital to a friend.

Current patient-survival and -satisfaction data can be downloaded into Access database software. Archived data are also available.

If you’d prefer to work with the data in Excel, the Association of Health Care Journalists keeps updated files, as well as the historic data, available on its site: healthjournalism.org. Ornstein, who is the group’s president, said you must be a member ($60/year) to access it. The site also has primers on how to use the patient-satisfaction and survival data.

He recommended looking at changes in patient satisfaction over time for individual hospitals. There are 12 reporting periods worth of data since 2008.

Here are some other resources for working with this data:

  • NetDoc.com allows you to look at the data on a Google map by ZIP code, but the stats may be somewhat out of date, Ornstein warned.

About the Author

Linda Austin is the executive director of the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. A former business editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer, she spent a decade as a top newsroom leader, serving as the editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky; executive editor of The News-Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind.; and managing editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. She offers business-story ideas and notes good #bizreads @LindaAustin_

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