The federal government today unveiled a public Web site comparing different hospitals’ use of “best practices” in the care of patients with pneumonia, heart failure and heart attack. It is searchable by state, city, county or ZIP code.

According to the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), which developed the Web site, about 98 percent of hospitals in the U.S. supplied data on 10 evidence-based best practices.

CMS officials said the information should help patients make more informed decisions when picking a hospital, and encourage hospitals to improve their care.

Hospital participation in the quality comparison is voluntary, sweetened by the promise of increased reimbursement for patients covered by the government health-care programs.

And although hospitals self-report information, the federal agency — which requires audits and is the largest source of reimbursement for most hospital costs — “carries a big stick,” said Lisa McGiffert, of the advocacy group Consumers Union.

In this state, all acute-care hospitals participated, with the exception of rural facilities too small for reports to be statistically significant, said Cassie Sauer, spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association. Hospitals haven’t always been happy to provide data publicly, she said, but were “enthusiastic” about this project.

“I think it will encourage hospitals to really improve their quality and focus on things we know will work,” she said. Many have already improved low scores since the first quarter of last year, the time period covered by the report.

Although most consumer and industry watchdog groups say they see the hospital comparison as a laudable first step, they caution that the data available won’t give patients a true picture of a hospital’s actual quality of care. Some groups have actively urged reporting of infection rates, patient outcome information and medical staff-per-patient ratios.

“We think that this is some progress,” said McGiffert, who heads the Consumers Union campaign for public disclosure of hospital infection rates. “They tell you how often [the hospital] gives a beta blocker when patients are discharged from the hospital. What we also want to see is how many people who had coronary bypass surgery died.”

Charles Idelson, spokesman for the California Nurses Association, which has pushed for hospital staffing-ratio requirements in that state, said the information is “minimally useful for patients.”

“They’re looking at whether the hospital followed standardized protocols,” Idelson said. “They’re not even looking at whether the patient lived or died.”

In addition, said McGiffert, the data is a year old, and may have changed significantly since then.

For example, at Swedish Medical Center’s First Hill and Providence campuses, only 22 and 31 percent of pneumonia patients, respectively, got vaccine against a common form of the disease during the study period. Swedish’s rates are now around 90 percent, said Dr. Curtis Veal, a pulmonologist who heads Swedish’s Medical-Staff Quality Committee.

The Web site lists 17 best practices, but only 65 percent of hospitals around the country opted to provide data for all 17, said CMS’ local spokesman Rod Haynes.

More here.