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This may sound obvious, but the best time to choose a hospital is when you don't need one. That way you have the time to compare all the hospitals in your area and think about what your preferences are.
One local hospital may have an emergency room with a great reputation. But the hospital across town may have a better reputation for hip surgery. In other words, you might choose one hospital for emergencies and another hospital for other treatment.
So it's a good idea to do some research and find out what hospital is best for you, whether you're planning to have surgery, you have a serious health condition that could require future hospital treatment, you're planning to give birth, or you just want to be prepared.
There are many kinds of hospitals, large and small. Some are run by nonprofit organizations or charities. Some are public hospitals, which means they are funded by taxes. And some are run by corporations, whose investors get some of the profit.
Hospitals that operate in partnership with medical schools are called teaching hospitals. In a teaching hospital, medical students, supervised by experienced doctors, practice their skills on patients, which some people might not like. But these hospitals also tend to have the newest treatments and equipment.
Some hospitals call themselves research hospitals. This means that many of the doctors who work there do scientific research in their fields of specialty and may even conduct clinical trials. Patients at this kind of hospital are often treated by doctors who are experts in their fields.
A hospital may specialize in one type of patient. There are children's hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, cancer centers, and hospitals for the elderly, for example.
A trauma center is a hospital that is equipped to handle extremely serious types of injuries.
Usually, the more beds a hospital has, the more services it provides. Most hospitals, for example, deliver babies. But not all hospitals have a special unit just for cancer patients or for patients with very bad burns.
Hospitals usually have a number of departments that treat patients, such as:
Larger hospitals may also have separate departments for certain specialties. For example, a hospital may have a cardiology unit, where heart patients are treated, or a special unit for people recovering from joint replacement surgery.
For certain treatments or surgeries, it can be important to go to a hospital with a lot of experience in those areas. Find out if any of the hospitals you're considering specialize in treating your condition.
Checking a hospital's reputation isn't as hard as you might think. There are four main sources of information:
Aside from a hospital's reputation for quality and safety, the little things matter too. Comfort items can be especially important if you expect your hospital stay to be longer than a few days.
The hospital's location may matter to you too. Think about how far you will have to drive, especially if there will be follow-up visits. Will friends and family be able to visit easily?
Compare the visiting rules of the hospitals you're considering. Some hospitals are stricter about visiting hours than others. Will the hospital let a loved one stay in the room with you overnight?
In an emergency, it's usually best to go to the nearest emergency room (ER). But if there are several in your area, it's good to do some comparisons ahead of time.
Find out which ER has the shortest waiting times. You can usually find this out by calling the hospital and asking for its average patient wait in the ER.
Short waiting times in the ER are great, but quality of care is important. In some cases it may be worth the drive to go to the emergency room 20 miles away if they have better equipment—a trauma center, for example. Your doctor is a good source of information. Ask your doctor which ER he or she would take a family member to.
Friends, neighbors, and coworkers who have been to the ER are also good sources. And nothing beats firsthand observation. Go to the ERs yourself some evening and compare what you see.
The Joint Commission compiles reports and national information on various health care services, including outpatient service centers. If you want to check on the performance of an outpatient service center, use the Quality Check feature on this Web site.
Other Works Consulted
Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (2010). Guide to Choosing a Hospital. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Available online: http://www.medicare.gov/Publications/Pubs/pdf/10181.pdf.
August 13, 2012
Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & Catherine D. Serio, PhD - Behavioral Health
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