Points to keep in mind about the data

For the first time, the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services is making available electronically copies of certain inspection reports since Jan. 1, 2011 for acute-care hospitals and critical access hospitals. But there are important caveats to consider when using this information to compare hospitals within a region or across regions.

First, the records released represent only a fraction of the total hospital inspections conducted by CMS. General acute-care hospitals are what many people consider when they think of a hospital. They often have emergency rooms and care for patients who’ve had heart attacks, pneumonia, heart failure, etc. Critical access hospitals are typically much smaller and serve rural areas with no other options for many miles.

The reports being released are those that detail what inspectors found when they responded to complaints about the care provided by these hospitals. Inspectors document their findings on forms and hospitals have a chance to respond (you have to request the hospital responses from CMS or the hospitals; they were not released in electronic format by CMS.)

During the process of preparing the records for release, CMS discovered that some state health departments and its own regional offices had sometimes not uploaded the inspection reports into a central computer system that could then be shared by us. In such cases, CMS identified the dates of the missing inspections and the number of deficiencies identified and those details are included on each hospital’s page. You can request that information from CMS or your state health department.

CMS and AHCJ have also discovered that some reports that should be released are missing entirely from the dataset. CMS is working with its regional offices and state health departments to remedy this problem. The issues seem to be particularly acute in California.

Finally, CMS is not (at this time) releasing electronically inspection reports of long-term care hospitals (those that provide a lesser level of care), rehab hospitals or psychiatric hospitals. It is also not releasing full-hospital inspections. These are typically done at random for hospitals that do not have outside accreditation or to verify the quality of inspections done by accrediting agencies. Full-hospital inspections, sometimes known as surveys, can also be ordered after a complaint inspection. AHCJ is working to get those reports released in the future.

Because of the data missing from these pages, reporters and others should exercise caution in ranking facilities within a state or across states. Instead, these reports can be helpful in pinpointing the problems recently identified at a particular hospital or in looking for hospitals that have been cited for a particular issue, such as medication errors or wrong-site surgery.