Rutter: Make yourself smarter about your hospital's safety

Hospitals nationwide have instituted stricter hand-washing policies and other measures in the fight against methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria, commonly referred to as MRSA.

You have a 1 in 25 chance of leaving the hospital with an infection you didn't have when you arrived. But that's a statistical illusion.

The "1 in 25" is a broad numerical convention based on thousands of hospitals and millions of patients. As high as that seems — and it does seem unnervingly large — that's not your real, predictable chance of getting stray infections, which constitute a statistically significant reason hospital patients die from treatable conditions.


That rate depends on which hospital treats you. No hospital is identical to any other.

In some hospitals, your chance is 1 in 200 or even 1 in 2,000. You are relatively safe.


In other hospitals, the mathematical chance of infection is 1 in10. That's a scary probability.

The only way to avoid the bad choice of a bad hospital stay is understanding which hospitals are better than others.

If you want to know your odds, bookmark this website:

Visit every spring and fall. Visit every time you will need a hospital's care. Nearly every hospital in every state is open to your judgment, as are their grades for the past four years.

Make yourself smarter.

Over the past half-dozen years, the Leapfrog Group Hospital Safety Grade has become the platinum standard for measuring hospital safety. The peer-reviewed report for hospitals arrives biannually for 2,633 acute-care hospitals in every state.

The rating lists the 113 Illinois hospitals in 30 different criteria with grades from A to F.

The state had 45 hospitals ranked A. In Lake County, there were no A grades and only one C, which was handed to NorthShore University Health System Highland Park Hospital. The rest were rated B.


Highland Park got its C for a set of problems that plague all hospitals — and, by extension, the patients they treat. In NorthShore Highland Park's case, the areas were methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) infections, which are resistant to antibiotics, and infections after colon surgery.

The hospital also got low rankings in four categories for protecting patients — accurate records for discharge information, doctors ordering meds through preferred computer channels, staff hand-washing dedication, and staff working together to prevent errors.

Measuring safety procedures has become a necessary fixation because hospital breakdowns, including patient injuries, accidents and infections, kill more than 200,000 Americans each year. That's the third leading cause of death in the nation.

The grading scale offers two ways to view a hospital's record: What the score reflects on its face, and what trends indicate.

For example, Vista Medical Center East in Waukegan got a B, as it did this spring, though it had been A in four of the five previous biennial ratings. Vista also had an issue with MRSA infections and with other infections during Intensive Care Unit stays and after surgeries.

But on a wide range of safety measures to protect patients, Vista's scores are exceptional and usually attributable to conscious safety efforts.


Though Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville got exemplary scores for its surgical performance — maybe among the best in the state — it still only scored an overall B partly because its MRSA drug-resistant infection rate was more than twice the state average. Hospitals with high MRSA rates often have facility cleanliness issues.

In nearly half the categories that rate patient protections and staff training to reduce errors, Condell did not report. When hospitals are skilled in one self-reporting area, they usually take pains to reveal how attentive they are to management details.

But "did not report" indicates they either have no system to train staff, no leadership to set standards or indifference to reporting either requirement.

Condell had scored an A overall mark in seven consecutive grading periods. The B marks a noteworthy departure, because the gap between grades might indicate marginal, temporary issues, or might indicate as much as a 25 percent decline in performance.

Some hospitals seem to slip for no apparent reason. Northwestern University's giant medical fortress in downtown Chicago was also B, though it had been a scored C in the spring after being rated A back through 2014.

When hospitals raise their grades, it's seldom an accident. Northwestern's Lake Forest campus got a B but had been rated C in the spring.


But nothing makes the reporting system more valuable than customers who pay attention to the care they and their loved ones get. That's your job.

There's a difference between great and mediocre. Hospitals now are required to pay attention, too.

Sometimes anticipating and understanding the difference separates life and death.

David Rutter was editor for 40 years at six newspapers.