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Surveys show hospitals have a long way to go in meeting patient expectations

The federal government’s new five-star rating system for hospitals based on patient surveys, recently reported in The News, reflects a noteworthy effort to hold hospitals accountable for improvement.

Information that helps patients make informed decisions about their care, or that of a loved one, should always be welcome.

The ratings, available at, report the experiences of adult patients at 3,553 hospitals and health systems across the nation on issues such as noise, cleanliness, pain control, communication with doctors and nurses, and adequate preparation for discharge.

The 11 measures surveyed are not new, although they had previously been reported to the public as percentages. Turning those surveys into an easy-to-understand rating system is the new angle. While some critics argue that the system is too simplistic and gives too much weight to issues less important than the actual medical care, the importance of each of the topics sampled becomes abundantly clear when one becomes the patient.

Low ratings cannot be ignored by hospitals. Doing so would be the equivalent of saying, “We don’t care what our patients think about pain management, or how well we inform them about decisions.”

Beyond allowing patients to compare facilities, the data tell hospital officials where they need to improve. Recognizing shortcomings should lead to better care as hospitals work to climb the ratings list. Having said that, large medical centers that care for the most serious illnesses and injuries may be at a disadvantage when it comes to some of the subjective measures. A patient may get excellent care but still not be satisfied with some aspect of his stay.

Disturbingly, of 17 Western New York hospitals rated on patient satisfaction, none received five stars and only one, Lake Shore Health Care Center in Irving, received four stars. Six area hospitals received three stars and 10 received two stars. Several other facilities were not rated.

Western New York was not alone in low ratings. No hospitals in the Syracuse, Rochester or Albany regions received five stars, and only four received four stars.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services stressed that a low rating does not mean patients will receive poor care. The ratings are relative, meaning that hospitals that received more stars performed better than facilities with fewer stars.

Back in 1995, the Niagara Health Quality Coalition, an independent group that produces a hospital report card, published results for every hospital in the region. That was a first, and gave the coalition the necessary experience to offer assistance to the federal government with the development of its measures.

Next year the government plans to rate hospitals using the star system on issues directly relating to patient care, such as rates of infections and serious complications.

Until then, the bottom line is that hospitals have to be concerned about quality of care as viewed through the eyes of patients. When hospital officials focus on the patient experience, improvements should follow.