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The Star Search Finding the right hospital can save your life.
By Dory Devlin

(FORTUNE Small Business) – For most of us, medical problems will be blessedly routine, and the local hospital is just fine. But when your condition is rare or complicated, you can save your life by finding the hospital that offers the right specialists. Figuring out how to start your search might sound daunting, but research has never been easier. Scores of Internet sites, such as the National Institutes of Health's (www.nih.gov), can lead you to hospitals that are conducting clinical trials and investigating new therapies.

Notes of caution: Don't choose a hospital based on media rankings, which don't account for unique circumstances; don't assume that the biggest hospital is the best; and don't leap onto any gurney without asking the following questions:

How often is the procedure that you need performed?

Experience makes a difference. Mortality rates are 40% to 80% lower at hospitals that perform certain procedures frequently, says the Journal of the American Medical Association. Ask the hospital how many procedures it does per year. Expect certain common ones, such as bypass surgery, to number in the hundreds. In the case of a rare or complicated procedure, you'll want a center that has performed more than one or two.

What is a particular hospital's mortality rate?

Getting such data--and interpreting it--is difficult. Some state health departments don't release results. Ask hospitals for that information, along with per-surgeon mortality rates and incidence of infection.

Does the hospital take a multidisciplinary approach to treatment?

Some hospitals treat patients by using teams of specialists that include physicians, nurses, nutritionists, physical therapists, counselors, and even beauticians. These professionals have special training in treating emotional and physical problems related to the disease such as hair loss from chemotherapy.

Does the hospital conduct clinical trials related to your situation?

A clinical trial is a research study that offers access to new drugs or therapies. Advantages: It might be effective in treating a disease that has resisted conventional therapies. But side effects are unknown, and the costs may not be covered by your insurance plan.

Is the facility's nursing staff adequate?

The American Nurses Association suggests a ratio of at least one registered nurse to every five patients in a medical-surgical unit. Intensive care units should have one nurse per patient, the group says.

Does the hospital monitor patient satisfaction?

Ask for the latest patient survey. If the last one was done when Dr. Kildare was on TV, coddling patients isn't a priority. Saint Barnabas Health Care System in Livingston, N.J., does frequent surveys. "They indicate how hard a hospital is trying," says Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Jay Kaplan.

Finally, who will pay?

Some insurance plans might not approve treatment several states away. See if your plan offers an option that permits you to seek treatment out of its traditional network.