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Hospitals reveal surgical infection rates

Surgery at U.W. Medical Center
Keith Seinfeld
Surgery at U.W. Medical Center

If you ever need elective surgery, more websites keep appearing to help you pick the safest hospital.  Now, you can compare all the hospitals in Washington based on their infection rates following some common surgeries. 

Lisa McGiffert with Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports, has been lobbying for this type of disclosure in all 50 states.  She says getting actual infection rates is more useful than other quality data that’s already available, “because surgery is often -- not always, but often -- something that is planned ahead.”   

For example, knee surgeries, hip replacements, hysterectomies, and some heart procedures are all included.  The website allows you to see if your local hospital is above or below average.  The information was compiled by the Washington State Hospital Association, although it was mandated by state law. 

One challenge it poses to average users is data overload -- when they confront a long spreadsheet.  McGiffert says, even if it's hard to judge which hospital is safest overall, looking at the information might at least lead to a useful conversation.

“For example, if I were going to a hospital with a high infection rate, I would be asking my doctor or surgeon, ‘Why is the infection rate so high here? And can you talk to me about how I am going to be ensured I am not going to get an infection?’” she says.

A number of other states already publish infection rates online.  Currently, if you want to compare hospitals in Washington, some of the information is on the hospital association website, but other data is maintained by the state health department. The new federal health care law will move these reports to a one-stop national database over the next few years. 

Hospitals may not love the public scrutiny, but say the comparisons are helping them improve.

Keith Seinfeld is a former KNKX/KPLU reporter who covered health, science and the environment over his 17 years with the station. He also served as assistant news director. Prior to KLPU, he was a staff reporter at The Seattle Times and The News Tribune in Tacoma and a freelance writer-producer. His work has been honored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.