Check Please: Choosing the Best Hospital for Your Cancer Surgery

Taking the time to do your homework can help when it comes to choosing a hospital for your cancer surgery.

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For nine months before Tom Murphy was rolled into the operating room for removal of a suspicious nodule on his lung, the 58-year-old management consultant vetted available surgical resources. His research involved surfing hospital websites, studying rankings and becoming involved with online cancer forums.

Because Murphy was a former smoker with other risk factors (including exposure to Agent Orange and radon gas), he had been undergoing computed tomography scans since his mid-50s. The suspicious nodule was identified by a scan in early 2010.

During subsequent months, as Murphy returned for additional scans that pointed to (but didn’t confirm) cancer, he realized that surgery was increasingly likely. That's when he began researching hospitals where he could receive the best surgical outcome with minimal post-surgical complications. His research focused on high-profile facilities, such as The Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, Fla., as well as hospitals closer to his home in central Maryland.

The investigation became a part-time job, one that wouldn’t have been feasible if he hadn’t been self-employed, he says.

"It was kind of like a shotgun [approach]," Murphy says. "Some of the sites I hit were helpful, and some weren't. I would have loved to have gone to a site that I felt gave me objective assessments."

While many healthcare professionals benefit from insider knowledge of high-quality facilities and providers, patients facing cancer surgery have relatively few resources beyond marketing materials and their doctor’s recommendation.

"It's always bothered me—how does the average cancer patient find the right place to go?" asks Daniel McKellar, a clinical professor of surgery at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. "There needs to be more available data."

Providing public access to treatment outcomes in an accurate and understandable way is improving, but it’s a work in progress, according to McKellar.

How does the average cancer patient find the right place to go?  There needs to be more available data.

In recent years, federal officials began publishing some hospital readmission and infection rates, as well as other treatment barometers, on Medicare's Hospital Compare website ( The bulk of the findings, particularly for outcomes like death rates, are restricted to heart-related issues and pneumonia. But some of the information is more relevant to cancer patients, such as post-surgical infections and the frequency with which surgical procedures are being followed, such as removing a patient's urinary catheter within two days after surgery.

The data "are all worth something," says Peter B. Bach, an epidemiologist who directs the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. "I think the mistake would be to assume that they tell you a great deal about the quality of care in that hospital."

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the General Discussions CURE discussion group.
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