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U.S. ads push patients to shop for hospitals

By Julie Appleby, USA TODAY

May, 22 2008


The Bush administration today launches a $1.9 million advertising campaign touting its effort to rate hospitals and urging patients to check a government website before choosing one.

The ad campaign in 58 regional newspapers lists hospitals and their scores on two of more than 30 measures available on the website: the percentage of patients getting antibiotics before surgery to prevent infection and whether patients "always" got help when they asked for it.

The government's campaign promoting the website by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) comes amid a flurry of efforts by states and the private sector to rate medical providers. The movement is fueled by demands from employers and consumer groups, including AARP and the Consumers Union, for more information about cost and quality.

Zagat Survey, the restaurant guide publisher, and Angie's List, which allows consumers to critique neighborhood services, also have begun rating doctors.

The movement has attracted both praise and criticism.

In October, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo won agreement from several major health insurers to disclose how they rank doctors and a promise not to rate physicians on cost alone.

Last month, the Consumer-Purchaser Disclosure Project, a coalition of groups representing consumers, employers and unions, agreed to develop a national set of standards to measure doctor performance.

While ratings efforts can be useful, they also can be confusing and limited in scope, says Robert Berenson, a senior fellow with the Urban Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that studies policy issues.

"If I were a consumer looking at these reports, I would be bewildered by the variations that show up across different rating systems," says Berenson, who says there is not enough information available to shop for health care the way people shop for cars or televisions.

The government's Hospital Compare website (, which launched in 2005 and expanded in March, has information on how well hospitals follow recommended care for heart attacks, pneumonia and surgery, and how satisfied patients are with their treatment.

Patients can enter ZIP codes or names of hospitals and can compare up to three hospitals at a time.

The site does not list hospital infection rates, although such information may one day be included, says Kerry Weems, CMS' acting administrator.

Weems says hospitals can use their rankings to spur improvements. "We hope these ads drive that conversation, not just in households, but also in communities and hospitals. There are some institutions that could improve," Weems says.

The Maryland ad, for example, lists 20 hospitals. Scores on patients receiving antibiotics before surgery range from 78% to 95%. Scores on the percentage of people who always received requested help range from 47% to 63%.

American Hospital Association President Rich Umbdenstock says he wants consumers to understand that the ads show just two of the measures included on the website. "I hope they see it as encouragement to go to the website," Umbdenstock says.