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When it comes to choosing a hospital, many patients rely on their doctor, who will usually steer them to the facility where he or she has privileges or other affiliations. Asking friends and family for recommendations is also a time-honored solution, and a hospital’s reputation in the community is an important indicator of its quality.

In an emergency, of course, ambulances are usually directed to take patients to the closest hospital. But for elective surgeries and procedures where there is time to plan ahead, there are resources to help judge the quality of hospital care, especially for common procedures such as cardiac bypass surgery. In the push to bring more accountability and transparency to the U.S. health-care system, federal and state government agencies, employer groups, and non-profit foundations are offering a growing range of data on hospital quality.

Much of the information comes from mining Medicare data and state records and surveying hospitals to come up with user-friendly databases to help consumers comparison-shop for care. States are also starting to publish more data on their hospitals, such as infection rates, and information on how well hospitals adhere to recommended guidelines for certain procedures.

So you can find out, for instance, how consistently your local hospital gives heart-attack patients a kind of medication called beta-blockers, or what proportion of surgery patients get antibiotics an hour before surgery. But sites that primarily delve into hospital processes — rather than outcomes — won’t tell you how well patients actually fare. And in some cases the information is too vague to be of much use: Web sites may only indicate whether a given hospital is better, no different or worse than national averages.

It helps to check your state health department and its hospital association, since the scope of information offered to consumers varies widely. In Wisconsin, for example, consumers can visit wicheckpoint.org for information on quality and safety measures at hospitals in the state, and go to wipricepoint.org for access to information on charges for various procedures at different hospitals.

New York’s state health department combines state and federal data to let consumers compare mortality rates for cardiac surgery at all hospitals in the state; at www.hospitals.nyhealth.gov, consumers can compare facilities against one another and against state averages. The site also provides some data on how often a hospital does a particular procedure, as well as some best-practices statistics.

Pennsylvania offers a broad variety of data from hospitals in the state, and publishes quarterly reports on mortality rates, readmissions and complications for some conditions, and average lengths of stay adjusted for how sick patients are, among other details. It also offers reports comparing costs and outcomes for specific procedures, like open-heart surgery, and examining the frequency of patients acquiring new infections while at different facilities.

It is also a good idea to check your health plan’s Web site. Blue Shield of California, for example, categorizes hospitals based on cost and their participation in quality-improvement and patient-experience programs.

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Filed under: Doctors & Hospitals