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Study: Top hospitals offer best odds for survival
Northeast Georgia Medical Center ranks among nations best in ultimate outcome
Registered Nurse Greg Adams checks the wristband bar code of patient Gus Williams at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. Each patient wears a wristband that is matched with their medications to prevent errors. - photo by Tom Reed


Listen to Lynda Adams as she describes Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s quality-control procedures.

Patients admitted to the nation’s top-rated hospitals, a category that includes Northeast Georgia Medical Center, have a 27 percent lower chance of dying during their stay.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from HealthGrades, an independent health care ratings organization. In its seventh annual Hospital Quality and Clinical Excellence study, HealthGrades evaluated discharge data on Medicare patients at nearly 5,000 hospitals nationwide.

The study looked at mortality and complication rates for 26 common medical procedures and diagnoses. Hospitals with fewer deaths and complications were ranked higher, with 270 hospitals comprising the top 5 percent.

Six of these hospitals are in Georgia. In addition to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, they include DeKalb Medical Center in Decatur, Gwinnett Medical Center in Lawrenceville, Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins, Piedmont Fayette Hospital in Fayetteville, and St. Joseph’s Hospital in Atlanta.

Scott Shapiro, spokesman for HealthGrades, said the top hospitals had consistent quality in every department.

"Most hospitals do well in some areas and not in others," he said. "But these do well across the board. They set the benchmarks to which all hospitals should aspire."

Shapiro said about 6.5 million people visit the Web site every month to compare hospital data. He thinks consumers trust the rankings because it’s not a popularity contest.

"The ratings are purely objective," he said. "They’re based solely on patient outcomes."

In addition to having a 27 percent lower mortality rate, patients who undergo surgery at the top hospitals are 8 percent less likely to suffer complications.

Lynda Adams, director of performance improvement at Northeast Georgia Medical Center, said she was not surprised that the Gainesville hospital received a high score from HealthGrades.

She said it reaffirmed what hospital officials already knew.

"We measure our mortality rates on a quarterly basis and compare it to other nonteaching community hospitals nationwide that have a similar acuity of patients," she said.

The expected mortality rate for hospitals in that category is 2.6 percent. Northeast Georgia Medical Center’s rate averages between 1.1 percent and 1.5 percent.

But Adams said the staff was happy to get recognition from HealthGrades. "We’re thrilled that we’re being acknowledged," she said.

Adams said a great deal of work goes into achieving a high ranking.

"There’s not one answer (for the high score)," she said. "We do so many things regarding patient safety."

She said the hospital has a well-trained "Code Blue" team that responds when a patient needs to be resuscitated. "But our goal is that we would never have to use the code team," she said.

Rather than waiting until a patient is near death to take action, the medical center has another team that checks on patients who aren’t yet critical but show signs that their condition may be deteriorating.

The hospital also is implementing a new initiative called "Condition H." If the patient or a family member notices something wrong, they can dial "HELP" on their phone anytime of day or night.

When a patient dies in the hospital for any reason, the case is reviewed at a monthly committee meeting where staff members try to determine if the death could have been prevented.

If a patient dies of something other than the condition they were admitted for, the most common reasons are medication errors, hospital-acquired infections, surgical complications and accidents, such as falls.

The medical center has taken steps to address all of those issues. Patient safety officer Debbie Daniels said they have long practiced measures to avoid any miscommunication.

"(Before surgery) we ask the patient to state their name and we compare it to their wristband," she said. "When there’s a shift change, we make sure all the patient’s information is handed off to the new staff."

Adams said to prevent medication errors, staff are told to avoid using certain words on patient charts that may be confusing. Also, medications are now bar-coded and scanned to make sure they match the code on the patient’s wristband.

Perhaps the biggest threat to hospitalized patients is infection, particularly with the growing incidence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Adams said hospitals have to remain vigilant about it and follow strict hand-washing protocols.

"If a patient dies of an infection (acquired in the hospital), to me that’s an error just as bad as operating on the wrong limb," Adams said.