Rau reported that hospitals covet the ratings so much they sometimes use the services of consultants to help boost their marks. Healthgrades and Truven Health Analytics, which publishes the 100 Top Hospitals, offer consulting services to hospitals that want to improve their ratings. It’s a win-win for Healthgrades, which itself rates hospitals. So it’s a little like the hospital getting test answers before the test.

The benefits of these ratings schemes to patients are much less clear—especially since most people tend to go to the hospital their physician or surgeon sends them to anyway.

Even when you do study the ratings, you might not learn much. In searching for a hospital for my own recent cataract surgery, I examined three ratings schemes—from U.S. News, Leapfrog, and the government’s Hospital Compare, which was the most useful. Examining dimensions of care measured by the government showed me what questions I needed to ask and what observations I should make in order to monitor my care. Having now been a patient in a hospital, I know where in the care process things can go wrong and what patients and their families can do to prevent at least some of the problems.

What patients also need for real guidance—and what reporters need for their stories—are the inspection reports made by surveyors for the Joint Commission, the private accrediting group that inspects hospitals. They also need inspection reports from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS). The Joint Commission won’t release its reports, but now the CMS inspection reports are available on the Association of Health Care Journalist’s website. They may be the best tools around.

The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow @USProjectCJR for more posts from this author and the rest of the United States Project team. And follow @Trudy_Lieberman.

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Trudy Lieberman is a fellow at the Center for Advancing Health and a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR’s healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.