If you're having a medical emergency, the best thing you can do is get to the nearest hospital.
But if you need non-emergency treatment, and you have time to plan, how do you find a hospital that best fits your needs?
A good place to start is the Medicare website, www.Medicare.gov. There you'll find an easy-to-use tool that has quality-of-care and patient- satisfaction information on more than 4,000 hospitals around the country that participate in Medicare and Medicaid.
The tool is called Hospital Compare. We have a similar, user-friendly tool – Nursing Home Compare – to find skilled nursing homes. More than 17,000 skilled nursing facilities in the United States are listed. We recently redesigned and added more information to both tools.
Hospital Compare and Nursing Home Compare have two purposes. One is to help people make good decisions about where they get health care. By making quality-of-care information easily accessible to the public, we also hope to encourage hospitals and skilled nursing homes to improve their performance.
You don't have to be enrolled in Medicare to use Hospital Compare or Nursing Home Compare – anyone can access them.
Both tools give you a good snapshot of the overall quality of care at various local hospitals and skilled nursing facilities.
Hospital Compare shows, for example, how often and how quickly hospitals give recommended treatments for heart attack, heart failure, pneumonia, and children's asthma.
It also shows the percentage of patients who developed serious conditions such as bloodstream infections and bed sores while in the hospital. Such conditions are often preventable, if the hospital follows best practices.
You can find out how often patients returned to the hospital with the same condition, and how that rate compares with the national average.
We recently began posting information on how often a hospital uses imaging procedures such as CT scans or MRIs on patients with Medicare. That's important because some imaging tests carry potential health risks, including unnecessary exposure to radiation.
Hospital Compare also lets you read the responses of patients to a detailed questionnaire that asks about their experiences and level of satisfaction.
The questions include how well doctors and nurses communicated with patients, and whether patients' pain was well controlled. Patients also are asked if the hospital kept their room clean, and whether they received information in writing about what symptoms or health problems to look out for after they were discharged.
Finally, patients are asked to rate their overall hospital experience on a scale of zero to 10 – and if they'd recommend that hospital to a relative or friend.
Nursing Home Compare shows the results of health inspections and provides information on staffing, including the number of nurses, physical therapists, and nursing assistants at each facility.
It also has a variety of measures that describe the quality of care in skilled nursing homes, such as the frequency of pressure sores and urinary incontinence.
And we're now posting the full text of our inspection reports, so you can read in detail about any problems that were found at a specific nursing facility.
To find Hospital Compare and Nursing Home Compare, go to www.Medicare.gov and scroll to the bottom of the page, under "Resource Locator." We also have compare tools for home health agencies and dialysis centers.
If you don't have a computer, you can call us, toll free, at 1-800-MEDICARE. We'll help you get the information you need.
[David Sayen is Medicare's regional administrator for Arizona, California, Hawaii, and Nevada. You can always get answers to your Medicare questions by calling 1-800-MEDICARE (1-800-633-4227).]