AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Emory topped by Gordon Hospital? Here's what ratings don't say

Next time U.S. hospitals must respond to a disease like ebola, is Gordon Hospital in Calhoun, Georgia -- population 15,650 -- the place to send patients? Should ambulances head to the 100-bed Northside Medical Center in Columbus if a horrific accident injures motorists on I-85 there?

Gordon and Northside are Georgia's only top-rated hospitals, judging by the new star rating system released by the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services on Wednesday. None of the Atlanta-area hospitals received all 5 stars - not Emory, chosen to treat the first ebola case brought to the U.S. And not Grady, which as a Level 1 trauma center has full trauma surgical teams working around the clock and treats thousands of severely injured patients a year. It received a lowly 1 star.

But the ratings don't tell the whole story, a CMS official noted.  Dr. Kate Goodrich, director of the CMS Center for Clinical Standards and Quality, wrote in a blog announcing the ratings that they reflect routine care for the average patient.

The goal, allow the public, at a glance, to understand a hospital's overall grade based on 64 quality measures.

"Specialized and cutting edge care that certain hospitals provide, such as specialized cancer care, are not reflected in these quality ratings," she wrote.

Of note, the 5-star Northside Medical Center does not offer emergency services. Accident victims and other trauma cases in Columbus are handled by its sister hospital, Midtown Medical, rated 2 stars. Columbus has no Level 1 trauma center.

And Gordon Hospital, part of Adventist Health System, doesn't list any infectious disease specialists among its physicians. No surprise: There appears to be a looming shortage of those in the U.S.. according to Dr. Wendy Armstrong, chair-elect of the Infectious Diseases Society of America and, notably, a teacher at Emory University School of Medicine.

So, yes, the ratings can help patients plow through the complex 64 measures of hospital quality. But as another Emory official told the AJC : "Comparisons among hospitals caring for very different types of patients can be very misleading if not evaluated properly."








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About the Author

Lois Norder is Senior Editor for Investigations in the newsroom at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.