The US News “Best Hospitals” List: In God We Trust, All Others Must Bring Data

By  |  July 19, 2012 | 

I knew it would happen sooner or later, and earlier this week it finally did.

In 2003 US News & World Report pronounced my hospital, UCSF Medical Center, the 7th best in the nation. That same year, Medicare launched its Hospital Compare website. For the first time, quality measures for patients with pneumonia, heart failure, and heart attack were now instantly available on the Internet. While we performed well on many of the Medicare measures, we were mediocre on some. And on one of them – the percent of hospitalized pneumonia patients who received pneumococcal vaccination prior to discharge – we were abysmal, getting it right only 10% of the time.

Here we were, a billion dollar university hospital, one of healthcare’s true Meccas, and we couldn’t figure out how to give patients a simple vaccine. Trying to inspire my colleagues to tackle this and other QI projects with the passion they require, I appealed to both physicians’ duty to patients and our innate competitiveness. US News & World Report might now consider us one of the top ten hospitals in the country, I said, but that was largely a reputational contest. How long do you think it’ll be before these publicly reported quality measures factor heavily into the US News rankings? Or that our reputation will actually be determined by real performance data?

The late Israeli prime minister Golda Meir once quipped, “Don’t be humble, you’re not that great.” To me, the launch of the Hospital Compare website was our Golda Meir moment.

And yesterday, when USN&WR unveiled its annual “Honor Roll” of “America’s Best Hospitals” for 2012, our Golda Meir moment came home to roost. UCSF had fallen out of the top 10 for the first time in over a decade – dropping from number 7 to number 13. The headline, though, was that Johns Hopkins Hospital had been pushed off its Number One perch, the coveted (and widely advertised) spot it held for 21 years.

What happened? When US News launched its Best Hospitals list with its April 30, 1990 issue, the entire ranking (which, then and now, considers only large teaching hospitals with advanced technologies) was based on reputation – a survey of 400 experts in each specialty rated the best hospitals in their field. Was this a measure of quality and safety? Maybe a little. But I’d bet that the rankings had more to do with the prominence of each hospital’s senior physicians, its publications and NIH portfolio, the quality of its training programs, and its successes in philanthropy than with the quality of the care it delivered. While the magazine changed the methodology to include some non-reputational outcome and process data in 1993, the reputational survey remained the most important factor. A 2010 Annals of Internal Medicine study found that the reputational score explained the final overall ranking in more than 90% of cases.

For this year’s ranking, USN&WR changed its methodology again, dialing down the credit for reputation (to just under one-third) and increasing the weight given to other statistical measures of quality, such as risk-adjusted mortality (32.5%), patient safety (things like major post-operative bleeding, 5%), and “other care-related indicators” (such as nurse-staffing, 30%). The result is that the Top Ten list – which had been about as predictable as the one chiseled on Mount Sinai – now offered some drama. In addition to UCSF and Hopkins, others that dropped included Penn (10th to 15th) and Michigan (14th to 17th); Vanderbilt, Stanford, and University of Washington fell off the list (which ends at 17) entirely. Moving up were Mass General (now number one), Pitt (from 12th to 10th), and two hospitals that had previously been off the list (NYU, now 11th, and Northwestern, now 12th).

Americans love rankings, and the hospital ranking game has become big business. Ranking is a cash cow for the rankers: when US News publishes a rankings issue (not just of hospitals but professional schools, colleges, and more), it’s a guaranteed hot seller. Rankings are also a big deal for those who get ranked. Hospitals are now ranked by at least half a dozen organizations, including Solucient (recently renamed Truven) and Healthgrades. Even the Joint Commission, which used to limit its work to hospital accreditation, has joined the ranking business. Just in the past two months, two new rankings were released, one by the business coalition The Leapfrog Group and another by Consumer Reports. Add up all the top hospitals lists and you’ll see some 500 American hospitals that can (and do, in billboards large and small) claim to be “One of the Top 100 in the Nation.”

Importantly, the evidence that patients use these rankings to make choices about where to receive their care is limited (Bill Clinton famously choose a “poorly ranked,” on outcomes at least, heart surgeon for his heart bypass operation, based on the surgeon’s reputation). Yet there is no question that good results are touted widely and disappointing results lead to significant soul searching, changes in resource allocation, and even some real improvements. After our Golda Meir moment in 2003, my hospital utterly transformed its approach to quality, safety, and patient experience, and we have made amazing strides (including, you’ll be pleased to know, in our pneumovax rate). Without question, UCSF is a far better hospital today than it was then, and I don’t think that would have happened without public reporting and rankings. The fact that a few of our peer hospitals moved the needle even farther than we did, as reflected in this year’s USN&WR list, will motivate us to do still better.

While some of the energy that rankings create is healthy, there is also a dark side, mostly because today’s quality measures are far from perfect. As the skin in the quality game increases, so too will the unintended consequences. Extra energy and money will go into the problems that feed the rankings, much of it drawn from areas that are just as important but not measured. Just consider all of the attention being lavished on preventing hospital falls and central line infections, safety problems that are not nearly as consequential or common as diagnostic errors (which have received considerably less attention because they’re so hard to measure). Great performance on some measures – like ultra-tight glucose control or the four-hour door-to-antibiotics measure for pneumonia – was ultimately proven to be harmful to patients.

And, as long as many of the outcome measures (such as mortality and readmission rates) are judged based on “observed-to-expected” ratios, hospitals will find it a lot easier to improve their ranking by changing the “expected” number (through changing their documentation and coding) than by actually improving the quality of care. You can bet that every hospital vying for a Top Ten spot is working this angle vigorously (with the aid, of course, of pricey consultants), resulting in something of a coding arms race. Appropriate coding is important and it is worthwhile to truly document our patients’ severity of illness, say by writing “severe sepsis” rather than “sepsis” when it is clinically apt. But this effort to document every co-morbidity and to use words that will trigger higher expected mortality rates can border on Kafkaesque. One consultant recommends that clinicians chart “functional quadriplegia” (yes, it’s got its own ICD-9 code, 780.72) when describing a bedbound patient. I’m sorry, but that’s just silly.

It’s easy to point to the gaming and the potential for unfairness, and to dismiss rankings as a childish and wasteful enterprise, more Reality Show than science. To me, though, the upside far outweighs the downside. Ranking and public reporting does serve to motivate hospitals to take quality and safety seriously, and to invest in systems and people to improve them. The unintended consequences should become less prominent as we develop more robust measures and as we are forced to all report measures the same way – the latter should be a key goal of regulators and an important deliverable for IT vendors. At my hospital, this year’s dip will drive us to redouble our efforts to improve the care we deliver. For patients, that seems like a win.

And as for being #13, well, that still makes us the top ranked hospital within 300 miles of San Francisco. As I said, we healthcare folks are competitive souls.


  1. Brad F
    Brad F July 19, 2012 at 10:39 am - Reply

    Be a futurist here and indulge me:

    “The unintended consequences should become less prominent as we develop more robust measures.”

    If anything, with bundled payments, FFS and cost accounting may play a lesser role and documentation may evolve to something very different than what we have today. How we track and risk adjust may evolve. Also, I have become a glass as half full cynic regarding validity of measures (a national sport mind you), but the literature, in fairness, has been as equally unkind on that front (this weeks latest entry: I agree with systems improvement and culture change, but capturing and grading it is not on the five year map–or longer–given the tools we have today.

    So, what does robust mean to you as we approach 2014-17?

    Do tell.

  2. Bob Latino July 19, 2012 at 4:53 pm - Reply

    Very interesting.

    As a laymen to what happens ‘behind the scenes’ of these typesof rankings, your explanation is enlightening, but not surprising. It seems that politics and marketing has more to do with the rankings than actual patient safety/outcomes performance.

    Can I then deduce that rankings of individual professional performance (such as top surgeons, lawyers or PCP in a specific market) are based on similar criteria? Sounds like top surgeons (just picking a random profession) are likely ranked by their peers rather than their actual outcomes and feedback from their patients. Would this be a correct assumption?

    These days you never know what to believe with the sophisticated means of marketing and speed at which it can reach a mass market.

    I am one of those that used to believe that Congress actually read a Bill before they passed it. Silly me!

    Bob Latino

  3. Marty Gutkin July 19, 2012 at 5:44 pm - Reply

    When is the industry going to regain control of itself. Measures around “best practices” should be demanded of ourselves, not mandated by the government or insurance companies.

    • Rebecca Coelius MD September 5, 2012 at 11:48 pm - Reply

      Very balanced piece.

      Its usually an industry’s lack of self regulation that brings on regulation from the outside.

      While I realize this is not a popular opinion, I think you would be hard pressed to find another industry where the person providing the service gets to stipulate the terms by which the customer evaluates whether they offer acceptable quality and experience for the price. Due to our middleman payment system in the US, that customer and evaluator is the payer. Obviously it would be much better if it was the patient, but regardless evaluating the performance of healthcare professionals and delivery systems is here to stay, and its a good thing.

  4. Ken Simone, DO, SFHM July 20, 2012 at 2:10 am - Reply


    That was a great presentation on the pressures that hospitals/healthcare leaders currently face and even more so in the future with the ACA coming down the pike. I’m concerned that hospitals/their leaders will spend too much time and money trying to score highly on the measures (i.e. gaming) which will negatively impact the available resources delegated to direct patient care…. OR they will expend additional resources to “make the grade” that will ultimately add to the cost of healthcare…. .

  5. Bill Millan August 1, 2012 at 12:56 pm - Reply

    The most important thing I want to know about a hospital is it’s hospital caused infection rate. Good luck with finding that out.

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About the Author:

Robert M. Wachter, MD is Professor and Interim Chairman of the Department of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where he holds the Lynne and Marc Benioff Endowed Chair in Hospital Medicine. He is also Chief of the Division of Hospital Medicine. He has published 250 articles and 6 books in the fields of quality, safety, and health policy. He coined the term hospitalist” in a 1996 New England Journal of Medicine article and is past-president of the Society of Hospital Medicine. He is generally considered the academic leader of the hospitalist movement, the fastest growing specialty in the history of modern medicine. He is also a national leader in the fields of patient safety and healthcare quality. He is editor of AHRQ WebM&M, a case-based patient safety journal on the Web, and AHRQ Patient Safety Network, the leading federal patient safety portal. Together, the sites receive nearly one million unique visits each year. He received one of the 2004 John M. Eisenberg Awards, the nation’s top honor in patient safety and quality. He has been selected as one of the 50 most influential physician-executives in the U.S. by Modern Healthcare magazine for the past eight years, the only academic physician to achieve this distinction; in 2015 he was #1 on the list. He is a former chair of the American Board of Internal Medicine, and has served on the healthcare advisory boards of several companies, including Google. His 2015 book, The Digital Doctor: Hope, Hype, and Harm at the Dawn of Medicine’s Computer Age, was a New York Times science bestseller.


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