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Research best doctor and hospital

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The vast majority of patients who spend time in the hospital are discharged without experiencing any hospital-induced complications. Despite that, "the hospital can be a dangerous place for sick people," says Charles Inlander, president of the People's Medical Society, the nation's largest consumer health care advocacy group.

Inlander's statement is backed up by statistics from the National Forum for Health Care Quality Measurement and Reporting and from the Institute of Medicine. According to the two organizations, nearly 180,000 Americans die each year as a result of medical errors or infections they acquire during a hospital stay.

If you're scheduled for surgery or other treatment that will require staying in a hospital, there are things you can do to improve your chances of a smooth recovery.

"One of the biggest myths is that patients are powerless," says Rick Wade of the American Hospital Association. "The key to a successful hospital stay is patient and family involvement each step along the way."

Advance preparation and planning are your first line of defense, so take the following steps prior to admission:

Select the best doctor for your procedure. Competency is crucial, so check for board certification at the American Board of Certified Medical Specialties www.abms.org.

For a disciplinary report on a doctor send $9.95 to the Federation of State Medical Boards, Attn: Physician Profiles, P.O. Box 97205, Dallas, Texas 75397-2507, or order it from www.docinfo.org.

Public Citizen (1-877-747-1616) sells regional publications listing doctors disciplined by state and federal governments. To order, go to www.citizen.org/hrg, click on "Questionable Doctors" and then "Purchase the Book." The cost is $20.

Find out how often the doctor has performed the operation you need. Ask whether the surgeon routinely operates on people of your age and on individuals with the same health conditions. Also inquire about possible complications and outcomes.

Check out the hospital. Research shows that experienced hospitals and doctors handle medical complications better and their patients have better outcomes overall.

Unfortunately, that information is usually not available to consumers.

For most patients, the path to the most informed choice boils down to picking the most qualified and capable doctor and using the hospital where he or she has operating privileges.