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For the first time, the federal government has compared hospitals based on their heart-attack and heart-failure death rates.

Health and Human Services officials, who released the data Thursday, acknowledged they were conservative in broadly categorizing nearly all 4,700 hospitals - including 39 in Utah - as being basically equal.

So while the goal in releasing the data, at, is to help consumers make informed decisions about their health care, observers noted the rankings are largely meaningless to the public.

"They were trying to be conservative so they wouldn't hurt [hospitals] by their own mistakes," said Kim Bateman, a vice president at HealthInsight, which has a federal contract to improve care at Utah hospitals.

He hopes subsequent reports show greater differences among hospitals.

"If over time we don't cut with a sharper knife, we're going lose [hospital officials'] attention. They can hide behind that conservatism of the report."

The government didn't release death rates of individual hospitals. Instead it ranked them as being better, equal or worse than the national average. But Utah's largest medical centers voluntarily provided their numbers to The Salt Lake Tribune.

The death rates for heart attack patients ranged from 18.3 percent at St. Mark's to 14.7 percent at Dixie Regional. The national average was 16.4 percent.

And the numbers for heart failure ranged from 13.9 percent at Davis to 10.6 percent at Cottonwood, with a national average of 11.1 percent.

"You have to be really careful trying to compare them," said Scott Williams, chief medical officer at MountainStar Healthcare, which owns St. Mark's. He and others said the differences between Utah hospital death rates are not statistically significant. "I see us as being . . . as good as 99 percent of hospitals in the country in what we're doing. We all need to be finding ways of doing better."

There are limitations to the data. The report only includes information about Medicare patients over 65 who were treated for heart failure or heart attack between July 2005 and June 2006 and later died of any cause within a month of admission.

Even the cardiologist in charge of some of the better-ranking hospitals sees no difference between the rates.

"There is no conclusions to be drawn except they all do a good job," said Donald Lappe, who oversees heart services for Intermountain Healthcare. "What you want to know is, 'What hospital gives me the best care?' For mortality to be a measure, it would have to be really, really bad to give you a possible lead into that answer."

Thursday's federal report card is just one piece of information consumers can use to access their quality of care. HHS also compares what kind of interventions hospitals provide heart-attack and heart-failure patients. And Utah compares hospital death rates for heart bypass surgery, balloon angioplasties, heart attacks and heart failures for all patients, not just the elderly. That report is available at

The public often doesn't have a choice on where to go for care because of their insurance or when they are being treated for an emergency.

Still, health officials believe disclosure of the data will spur hospitals to make changes, even if the public doesn't read the reports.

"If your deaths are being published, it makes you want to get better," said Bateman.

Williams, with MountainStar, said his hospitals will look at the Medicare data and analyze why each patient died with an eye to preventing such deaths in the future.

He also cautions against making health care decisions based on reports alone.

"When you buy a car, you can go to Consumer Reports and get the rankings," he said. "Then you want to go kick the tires, if you will. Talk to a physician and make sure you communicate well with that physician."