Online Rating System for Nursing Homes -- 'Zagat-izing' Long-Term Care?


Having to place a parent in a nursing home is one of those utterly overwhelming experiences. There’s the guilt about the fact that you likely can’t afford the most expensive community, the anxiety that the staff won’t take proper care of Mom or Dad, and on and on.

It’s rare for anyone to want to face these demons and seek out information about nursing homes until they find themselves neck-deep in a health crisis. But it may be slightly comforting to know that the government has launched a new online rating system, Nursing Home Compare. It synthesizes data from health inspections, quality-of-service ratings and staffing ratios using an intuitive five-star system. Running a quick search to see how I would fare if it was suddenly my time for such an eventuality, I was relieved to find a five-star facility in my own zip code.

When I spoke with Kerry Weems, the acting administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), who put the site together, he told me that closer monitoring of nursing homes happened after the revelation in the 1980s that many residents were being abused, neglected and given inadequate care. Attention to the problem resulted in vast improvements across the board. He told me he hopes that the Web site his agency has put together will go even further to help improve the quality of nursing homes across the country.

One of the CMS’s next projects will be the launch of a similar site for hospitals. This is an already crowded arena, albeit one that has remained relatively undiscovered by those looking for a new doctor or hospital, according to researchers at the Center for Studying Health System Change in Washington, D.C.

Hospital comparison sites that may interest you include:

The Commonwealth Fund’s – although this is supposed to be geared to an audience of health care professionals, you can easily use the database to compare your personalized selection of hospitals side-by-side as well as against national averages or national top performers. You can compare overall ratings or specific measures. A quick check confirmed what I already suspected after my most recent stay in a Boston-area hospital: It was below the national average for keeping patient areas quiet at night. I knew I shouldn’t have had to plug headphones into a white noise generator and put two pillows over my head.

Leapfrog Group’s safety ratings also allow you to sort hospitals by area but they look specifically at several steps that they believe hospitals should be taking to prevent common medical mistakes. Their Web site points out that up to 98,000 Americans die every year from preventable medical errors -- more deaths than from vehicle crashes. It looks like my hospital is doing well in its staffing levels but I’m shocked to see they seem to be doing very little to prevent the “13 most common” medical mistakes. Whatever those are. I can’t find them easily on its site. Leapfrog also only has data for about half the nation’s hospitals.

Finally, Healthgrades’ report cards surveys patients on their level of satisfaction with their hospital. As far as I can tell, however, you can only look at one kind of procedure at a time. I checked out a few and found the rankings for the Boston hospitals all over the map, depending on what procedure I was looking at. This is very interesting to me and demonstrates the potential flaw in looking at overall ratings for a given center. It also highlights the fact that not all big-name medical centers do well when it comes to measures of patient happiness. Healthgrades also only has data for about half the nation’s hospitals.

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