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Heart Hospital Rankings Don't Reveal Whole Picture

On Friday, U.S. News and World Report magazine releases its annual list of the 50 best hospitals for treating heart problems.

These ratings generate a lot of buzz, but they aren't necessarily a list that people at risk of heart attacks should follow.

Dr. Harlan Krumholz, a heart specialist at Yale University, has always been curious about the U.S. News and World Report rankings.

He says when his hospital makes the list, Yale makes a big to-do about it.

"We take out ads and there are banners around," Krumholz says. "And if people don't know about it, we try to let them know. I mean, hospitals themselves ... try to take advantage of it and use it for marketing. But the question people may have is, you know, how well does this rating system really characterize the performance of my institution?"

And for Krumholz the essential question is: How many patients who come to the emergency room with a heart attack survive and live at least a month?

To get the answer, Krumholz analyzed the U.S. News rankings from 2003. At the top of the magazine's list were prestigious institutions including Hopkins, Harvard, Emory and Stanford.

Krumholz collected heart attack data on 3,800 hospitals nationwide. Overall, he says, 35 of the U.S. News hospitals were in the top rank on heart attack survival.

"What it shows is that the ranking system — which, by and large, is built on reputation and identifies some of the most famous and well-known institutions in the country — did a pretty good job of picking out the hospitals that did better than expected," Krumholz says.

But there are several important caveats. On average, the top hospitals didn't do much better than all the rest. Sixteen percent of heart attack patients treated at the U.S. News top hospitals died. compared with 17.9 percent at all the others.

What's more, four out of U.S. News' top 50 hospitals had mortality rates that were among the nation's worst.

"The mere fact of being famous or well known doesn't guarantee that patients are going to get the best care," Krumholz says.

The editors of U.S. News and World Report say they're gratified that 35 out of their 50 made Krumholz's top rank. But editor Avery Comarow, who supervises the annual ranking, says his review isn't designed to rate hospitals on how well they treat emergency room heart attacks.

"When we survey doctors, we request that they list five hospitals in their specialty for patients with difficult or complicated cases, regardless or location or expense," Comarow says.

Difficult or complicated cases can be procedures such as heart transplants, bypass surgery or implanting pacemakers.

In ranking hospitals for these specialty heart disease treatments, U.S. News does consider a few other criteria.

The magazine looks at the number of procedures performed, deaths in the hospital related to those procedures, and quality-of-care measures such as the nurse-to-patient ratio and the number of key technologies in use.

"I think any indicator or ranking has to take into consideration multiple facets of that hospitals care," says cardiologist Howard Hermann of the University of Pennsylvania.

The U.S. News heart hospital rankings may be a useful ranking if you're specifically interested in knowing how well a hospital does on one of the specialty treatments, Hermann says. But it doesn't break down the outcomes for each procedure.

The Yale analysis would be more useful if you wanted to know how well a given hospital keeps emergency room heart attack patients alive.

"And so no single indicator or ranking of a hospital is going to tell you everything you need to know about that hospital," Hermann says.

Ratings, rankings and scorecards are published by state agencies, Medicare, non-profit organizations, academic researchers and the media.

Yale's Harlan Krumholz says outcome measurements are a big advance over relying on reputation alone.

"The real reasons you do this is so that hospitals and clinicians and everyone involved in health care can take a long, hard look at what they do," he says. "They can compare and figure out what they can do better."

And, he says, that's the real value of report cards.

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Allison Aubrey
Allison Aubrey is a Washington-based correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She has reported extensively on the coronavirus pandemic since it began, providing near-daily coverage of new developments and effects. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.