We are living in the age of consumer choice. Need a plumber? You can find ratings and referrals online. Want to buy a car? Check annual rankings. What do you do, though, when your doctor says you need heart surgery?
It’s important to learn as much as you can about the hospitals that offer the type of heart surgery you need, and about specialists among cardiac surgeons. Knowing what questions to ask and where to find the answers can help you make choices that will provide the best care for your needs.
To learn more, we talked with cardiac surgeon Faisal Bakaeen, MD.
Q: Where can you find public information?
A: Two decades ago it may have been difficult to find out much, if anything about health care providers. Today, though, it’s much easier to find public data and ratings on hospitals and doctors. Start your search for information and rankings with these sources:
- State health departments
- State hospital associations
- Health insurers — they sometimes track patient experience and quality measures
- Physician organizations — ratings and outcome listings
- Hospital Compare — Medicare’s star ratings that rank hospitals based on such things as value, patient experience, complications and re-admissions
Tip: U.S. News and World Report’s annual health-care ranking is another good starting point. It’s valuable because it considers a hospital’s reputation among physicians. Government sources like Hospital Compare, on the other hand, use raw data and don’t adjust for things like risk and patient complexity.
Q: What markers should I look for among information provided by hospitals?
A: Not all hospitals take part in rankings like U.S. News, but you can still compare their internal data to others that are publicly reported. Many hospitals offer outcomes and performance data on their websites. If not, they should provide it if you ask for it.
To dig deeper on quality, look for these markers for cardiac programs:
- Mortality rates
- Morbidity rates
- Incidence of wound infections
- Incidence of post-operative complications like pneumonia or stroke
- Rates of re-admission after surgery
Tip: It’s also helpful to know how much experience a hospital or physician has with the specific type of surgery you need. A surgeon who performs a surgery 250 times a year will have better skills than one who does it a dozen times annually. A hospital with a high volume of patients who undergo your specific procedure will have the facilities, equipment and team of experienced health care providers necessary to fully support you in treatment and recovery.
Q: Are there advantages in hospital size?
A: If your condition is complex, it’s a good idea to look into what large hospitals can offer. Consider these factors:
- A hospital with a larger staff is likely to have more specialized experts. For instance, instead of being treated by a general cardiologist, you may see someone who specializes in diseases of the aorta, valvular heart disease or transplant cardiology.
- If you have more than one condition, such as diabetes and pulmonary issues, a larger hospital likely will treat you with a team drawn from a large pool of doctors and other health care providers. These medical professionals can work together as a team to treat your medical issues concurrently.
Q: What other information should you ask about?
A: There is more to learn about hospital reputations in general, and you’ll also want to ask about specifics involving your condition. Here are a couple more questions to ask:
- Are the hospitals you’re considering recognized for cardiac surgery by independent groups like the Joint Commission or Surgical Review Corp.?
- What options are there for the type of surgery you need? For example, is a minimally invasive procedure — an operation done through a small incision — available?
Finding information on a hospital is easier than ever, but it may take some research. Do your best to find out as much as you can in advance.
Learn whatever you can about the hospitals available to you, consider whether a specialist is best and then meet with the surgeon you choose about your options. These steps can all help you improve your chances of a good outcome and a speedy recovery.