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Health-care evaluations to be made available

If you want to buy a new microwave oven, you can check Consumer Reports to compare models. If you want to invest in a company, you can request information from the Securities Exchange Commission.

But if you need to choose a hospital or a home health care service, where do you turn?

In the past, consumers were left in the dark and had to rely on the recommendations of doctors or friends.

But starting in December, consumers will be able to purchase reports from the nation's largest health-care accreditation agency on how well hospitals, outpatient clinics and other facilities are managed.

The move is a big change for the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Health Care Organizations, the Chicago-based group that accredits 11,000 facilities nationwide. Previously, most of the information collected by the commission in its inspections of facilities was kept secret.

The new reports, which will be available Dec. 8 at $30 each, will rate hospitals and other health facilities in 26 areas, including management, patient care, infection control and staff training. They also will show how facilities compare.

"There's nothing particularly revolutionary about this concept except that it's never really been applied to health care before," said Carolyn Lewis, who represents the public on the agency's Board of Commissioners. "In the 1990s, the American people have begun to ask questions. We want to know about the care we receive."

This year, performance reports will be available on only 1,400 of the 11,000 health facilities accredited. The rest will be completed by 1996.

That still won't include every hospital or health care organization in Florida. Accreditation by the joint commission is voluntary. About 75 percent of the 325 hospitals in Florida are accredited, Towey said.

The reports will be among several tools being developed in Florida and nationwide to give consumers more information in choosing health providers. The state of Florida is developing a rating guide that will include every health plan in the state.

"What you're seeing is absolutely the most important part of health care reform _ consumer data," said Ed Towey, spokesman for the state Agency on Health Care Administration. "A smarter consumer making a smarter choice will encourage all the competitors in the market to show they are doing a better job. The people will vote with their feet."

The state's hospital guide will examine specific measurements of hospital performance such as mortality rates and cost. In contrast, the joint commission looks at broader standards of management and operation.

Because of that, some industry officials are questioning just how helpful the performance reports will be for consumers.

Not only might the reports fail to help consumers, they might mislead consumers to think a hospital is caring poorly for patients when that isn't the case, said Mark Milner, a vice president with the Florida Hospital Association.

A score in the "Medical Staff" category, he said, could include such standards as the way bylaws are written and the way meetings are held, factors that don't relate to patient care.

"Many of their standards are bricks and mortar issues," Milner said. "They are not necessarily reflective of patient care."

Still, facilities that received good marks from the joint commission are pleased the information will be available to the public.

Joseph Sterensis, a co-owner of Preferred Diagnostic and Medical Services in Largo, said his company spent a lot of effort and money to obtain accreditation this year from the joint commission. That's an unusual move for a small, family-run business like Sterensis', which provides oxygen, wheelchairs, and other equipment to patients at home.

"I think anything that causes us to be measured in terms of quality can only help our industry and the image of our industry," Sterensis said.

But even if the public doesn't make a run on the reports, the industry might.

Lee Ghezzy, an associate administrator at Horizon Hospital in Clearwater, said he likes the idea of being able to compare his facility to others, which has been difficult in the past.

"I don't think it's going to be very helpful to a normal person," Ghezzy said, "but I would like to see just how we fit in."