For most patients who need hospitalization, the one the doctor recommends probably is fine — but it might not be if you need demanding surgery or if age, physical infirmities or a chronic condition could compromise your treatment or procedure. Then a visit to the Best Hospitals national rankings and Best Regional Hospitals rankings may be in order. What goes into those evaluations, as well as questions of interest to media and health care professionals, are addressed in this FAQ. A fully detailed methodology report is available as a downloadable PDF.
Where can I find the rankings?
Why does U.S. News rank hospitals?
Every year, as many as 2 million hospital patients face surgery or care that is technically challenging or a risk of death or harm that is multiplied because of age, physical condition or infirmities. The rankings provide such patients with a tool to help them find unusually skilled inpatient care.
What's an example of a patient like this?
Take a man in his 90s who needs a faulty heart valve replaced. Most hospitals would decline to perform the procedure (as they should if they aren't up to speed on the special techniques and precautions required and don't see many such cases) or, worse, they might operate even if they lacked the skills, subjecting the man to great risk. A hospital that appears in the Best Hospitals rankings in cardiology and heart surgery is likely to have the necessary experience and expertise.
How are the rankings organized and updated?
The Best Hospitals rankings, which are updated every July, are grouped into 16 individual specialty lists. Twelve of the 16 showcase the 50 top-scoring hospitals, based mostly on death rates for the most demanding cases, patient safety and other categories of performance that can be weighed with hard data. An annual reputational survey of physicians, who are asked to name hospitals they consider the best in their specialty for difficult cases, also is factored in. While unranked nationally, hospitals with scores that fell within the top 25 percent of the range in a given specialty are recognized as high-performing in the specialty. A hospital that is either ranked or high-performing in at least one specialty is further recognized as among the Best Regional Hospitals within its state and metro area or similar region. (More on the Best Regional Hospitals methodology below.)
In four other specialties, hospitals are ranked by reputation alone based on the three most recent annual physician surveys. Those receiving nominations from at least 5 percent of the specialists who responded to the last three surveys are nationally ranked Best Hospitals. Those nominated by at least 3 percent but less than 5 percent of physicians are high-performing Best Regional Hospitals.
Hospitals that rank very high in at least six specialties are recognized in the Honor Roll. (See below, "What is the significance of the Honor Roll?")
What are the 16 specialties in which hospitals are ranked?
The 12 data-dependent specialties are cancer; cardiology & heart surgery; diabetes & endocrinology; ear, nose & throat; gastroenterology & GI (gastrointestinal) surgery; geriatrics; gynecology; nephrology; neurology & neurosurgery; orthopedics; pulmonology, and urology.
The four reputation-only specialties are ophthalmology, psychiatry, rehabilitation and rheumatology.
Are the highest-ranked hospitals in a specialty the best choice?
Not necessarily. Each specialty ranking evaluates hospitals according to their performance across a wide range of conditions and procedures. In pulmonology, for example, one hospital might rank lower than another overall but outperform it in treating patients with a particular condition, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
So the rankings are just a starting point?
Clarification 8/6/13: This story has been updated to clarify the rules by which hospitals’ state and metro area rankings are determined.