Even the hospital industry agrees that too little information about hospitals' quality of care and patient outcomes is made public for people to make an informed choice about where to go. Until there is greater "medical transparency," patients can get at least some information from several sources:

The Joint Commission, a private non-profit that accredits hospitals, produces a free report that lists "top performing" hospitals as judged by the quality of care they provide for heart attacks, stroke, and five other conditions.

Consumers Union, the non-profit that publishes Consumer Reports, offers hospital ratings based on government and private data, for $6.95 per month or $30 a year, as well as ratings of surgeons who perform heart bypass operations.

The Leapfrog Group, a business organization that collects data directly from cooperating hospitals, offers free hospital ratings based on patient safety records. The ratings reflect safety data on 11 ailments or procedures, from pneumonia and angioplasty to esophageal resection, and how well the hospital does in avoiding medication errors or medical complications such as infections. It also shows which hospitals "declined to respond" to Leapfrog's requests for information.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services runs Hospital Compare, which reports data on some 4,000 Medicare-certified hospitals. Patients can learn how a hospital does, relative to the national average, on timely and effective care (providing recommended treatments for conditions such as heart failure, pneumonia and children's asthma), rates of readmission and 30-day death rates, and patient reports of their experience.