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OBJECTIVE: To examine three issues related to using patient assessments of care as a means to select hospitals and foster consumer choice-specifically, whether patient assessments (1) vary across hospitals, (2) are reproducible over time, and (3) are biased by case-mix differences. DATA SOURCES/STUDY SETTING: Surveys that were mailed to 27,674 randomly selected patients admitted to 18 hospitals in a large metropolitan region (Northeast Ohio) for labor and delivery in 1992-1994. We received completed surveys from 16,051 patients (58 percent response rate). STUDY DESIGN: Design was a repeated cross-sectional study. DATA COLLECTION: Surveys were mailed approximately 8 to 12 weeks after discharge. We used three previously validated scales evaluating patients' global assessments of care (three items)as well as assessments of physician (six items) and nursing (five items) care. Each scale had a possible range of 0 (poor care) to 100 (excellent care). PRINCIPAL FINDINGS: Patient assessments varied (p<.001) across hospitals for each scale. Mean hospital scores were higher or lower (p<.01) than the sample mean for seven or more hospitals during each year of data collection. However, within individual hospitals, mean scores were reproducible over the three years. In addition, relative hospital rankings were stable; Spearman correlation coefficients ranged from 0.85 to 0.96 when rankings during individual years were compared. Patient characteristics (age, race, education, insurance status, health status, type of delivery) explained only 2-3 percent of the variance in patient assessments, and adjusting scores for these factors had little effect on hospitals' scores. CONCLUSIONS: The findings indicate that patient assessments of care may be a sensitive measure for discriminating among hospitals. In addition, hospital scores are reproducible and not substantially affected by case-mix differences. If our findings regarding patient assessments are generalizable to other patient populations and delivery settings, these measures may be a useful tool for consumers in selecting hospitals or other healthcare providers.