Tips for Comparing Online Information about Long-Term Care

Part of the Planning For Long-Term Care For Dummies Cheat Sheet

When researching online information about long-term care, you want to know that what you're viewing is quality information. Websites offer comparative rankings and user reviews of everything from restaurants to electronic products to colleges. And long-term care is no different. Dozens of sites offer comparisons of hospitals, nursing homes, and doctors. But how much weight should you place on any of these sites? And how do you compare the comparisons? What are their strengths and what do they lack?

The website of the Informed Patient Institute (IPI) can help. IPI is an independent, nonprofit organization created to provide unbiased information about health care quality online report cards from both governmental and private sources. It does not rate individual healthcare providers. The ratings are based on 15 criteria in six areas: the site's content, timeliness, presentation, ease of use, information to help make decisions, and special features.

IPI rates websites for nursing homes, hospitals, and doctors. The ratings range from "Recommended," including A (Outstanding), B (Very Good), and U (Recommended for Unique Content). Sites that are designated "Use with Caution" are ranked as C (Fair) or D (Poor). Finally, the really bad grade of F is "Not Recommended" or "Not Worth Your Time."

Checking how the rating system works

Start by entering your state and the type of provider you are investigating. For example, you live in Colorado and are looking at nursing homes. Eight websites are rated, with rankings from B to D. Each rating has sections called "What we like" and "What we don't like" and a link to each website so you can make your own judgment.

Medicare's site Nursing Home Compare gets a grade of "B." IPI likes its nationwide database, its inclusion of many different types of information, including results of state surveys, and quality of care. Nursing Home Compare uses a 5-star quality rating system, points out nursing homes with persistently poor performance, and makes the information available in Spanish. On the negative side, Nursing Home Compare does not have information on resident or family satisfaction with the homes, cost, or resident demographics. The rating of Nursing Home Compare is the same for every state.

Colorado's state website also gets a "B," but with different likes and don't likes. On the positive side, there is clear information about complaints, state inspection surveys, and other required reports. But it provides limited other information and "makes it hard to determine which nursing homes are best." The rest of the sites have different like/don't like profiles but there is a pattern in the "don't likes" of failure to provide information about costs, resident and family satisfaction, and outdated information. Many sites are disliked because they are difficult to navigate.

Websites with doctor ratings are generally prepared by specialty organizations or local physician organizations. For example, Michigan has 12 sites in this category, with no A rankings, three Bs, four Cs, and one each ranked U and D. In general, IPI doesn't like magazine sites that proclaim "100 Best Doctors in Your City" because they become popularity contests rather than quality measures.

Not all states currently have specific hospital ratings online, but all states will eventually be included. The states with current online hospital rating comparisons are: Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, North Dakota , and South Carolina.

California, for example, lists 13 websites ranking hospitals — all Bs and Cs, with two Us (one a website on infections). The review of HospitalCompare, a Medicare site, likes its wide range of information, patient satisfaction results, and quality measures on treatment for diseases such as pneumonia and heart attack. But some information is too technical for the average user, and it's hard to determine which hospitals do better overall.

Looking at additional features

The website also has a series of tip sheets for handling quality problems in selected states. The first states on this list are California, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina. And there are links to news reports about report cards, quality measures, and other topics, as well as a list of other resources.

IPI's website is easy to navigate and makes clear the strengths and limitations of websites that compare health providers. Users can comment on the site (but these comments are not published) and suggest other websites to be reviewed. One area that is missing, and may be included in time, is assisted living. Although you may disagree with some of the ratings, and will still need to do much more research, looking at the websites for nursing homes, hospitals, and doctors will prepare you to be a much more critical user.

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