It’s the news everyone dreads hearing: You—or a family member—have a serious illness. Perhaps it’s a rare form of cancer, or a heart ailment that requires a complicated surgery. Or it might be a little-understood disease, such as Parkinson’s, that has limited options for effective treatment. At a time like this, finding the best possible doctor is, of course, crucial. But nearly as important is finding the best hospital.

On these occasions, you want an institution that shines in the measures that matter most: Availability of advanced technologies and skilled specialists, for example. Low infection and death rates. High nurse-patient ratios. Luckily, there are lots of data providers, from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to the medical research firm Leapfrog Group, that track such things. Maybe too many. “There’s so much information out there that you can kind of get lost in the forest,” says Dean M. Harrison, president and CEO of Northwestern Memorial HealthCare (the parent of Northwestern Memorial and Northwestern Lake Forest Hospitals).

So Chicago sorted through the most relevant data available on medical quality—and polled experts who know Chicago’s hospitals best—to come up with an authoritative ranking of the 12 best institutions in the metro area (see “How Chicago Ranked the Hospitals” at right). We further quizzed experts both locally and nationally to shed light on one key question: When it comes to hospital quality, how does Chicago measure up?

That question is hotly debated. On one hand, you have medical experts here saying that Chicago is blessed with loads of fantastic hospitals, including five highly respected teaching hospitals: Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, Rush, and Loyola. “This is a city full of phenomenal health care providers [and] outstanding medical centers,” says Dr. Larry Goodman, the CEO of Rush University Medical Center.

On the other hand, take a look at the widely acknowledged gold standard of national hospital rankings—those produced annually by U.S. News & World Report—and you see that no Chicago hospital even cracks the top ten. In the magazine’s 2012 honor roll—a list of 17 institutions that “excel across a broad spectrum of patient care” in a wide range of medical specialties—Massachusetts General in Boston claims the top spot, followed by Johns Hopkins in Baltimore and the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. Three New York City hospitals show up on the list. The only hospital in the Chicago area is Northwestern Memorial, at No. 12 (see “How Chicago Stacks Up”).

So what gives? Part of the problem may lie with reputation. The formula U.S. News uses for its rankings gives a weight of 32.5 percent to a hospital’s reputation (based on the combined results of three years of doctors’ surveys). Opinion, of course, can be affected by many things, including how good a hospital is at selling itself to the outside world. “We’re humble Midwesterners!” says Sharon O’Keefe, president of University of Chicago Medicine. “We don’t toot our own horn as often as we could.”

To correct for that possible bias, Chicago approached its rankings in a slightly different way. Instead of asking specialists from across the country to assess Chicago’s medical institutions, we asked people who are arguably in a better position to make that evaluation: chief medical officers and other doctors in top hospital administrative posts right here in the area. We also gave those reputation grades slightly less weight (30 percent), relying more heavily on objective, measurable data, such as survival rates and the variety of available facilities and services.

* * *

Still, the question holds: given the size of its population, are Chicago’s hospitals of lower quality than you might expect? And if you need a complicated surgery, should you fly to Mass General or the Mayo Clinic rather than stay here?

In most cases, objective experts say, the answer is no. “Chicago’s hospitals are excellent,” insists David Dranove, director of the Health Enterprise Management Program at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management. “In 99.9 percent of cases, patients can find an outstanding provider with experience treating their problem. There might be some rare condition for which Chicago physicians and hospitals have little experience, but going to Mayo or Mass General does not guarantee you will get better care. Do not confuse reputation or research prowess with clinical excellence.”

The key to landing at the right hospital, explains Avery Comarow, the editor who oversees the hospital rankings at U.S. News, is doing some research. “If you’ve been referred to a physician for complex surgery,” he says, “start gathering information. Does the surgeon do a lot of these procedures? What kind of track record does he have with them with patients like you? If the answers to these questions are reassuring and detailed, why go somewhere else? There’s no compelling reason to go out of town unless there is a clear advantage in survivability or post-op quality of life.”

“On any given day, in any given hospital, since health care is a uniquely human endeavor, you may get extremely excellent care, or you may be one of those patients who will not have the best of care,” adds Jerod M. Loeb, executive vice president of health care quality evaluation at the Joint Commission, the hospital accrediting group based in Oakbrook Terrace. “It probably will not matter whether you’re at one of the top hospitals or one that hasn’t made the list.”

Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, points out that not many of us are confronting the kind of worst-case scenarios that might necessitate a trip out of town. “Most people who have routine things happening to them—appendicitis, bypass surgery—probably don’t need to travel very far,” she says. “[They can] get good care in their own community.”

One factor in Chicago’s favor is the huge investment several hospitals here have recently made in their facilities. In December 2011, for example, Rush University Medical Center opened a brand-new $654 million building (shown at right) on its Near West Side campus: nine floors featuring the latest in surgical, diagnostic, therapeutic, and emergency services and another five stories devoted to acute and critical care. Last June saw the opening of the Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital in Streeterville, an $855 million 23-story replacement for Children’s Memorial in Lincoln Park that has won acclaim for its design, which features single-patient rooms and an expanded neonatal intensive care unit.

There’s more on the horizon. In February, the University of Chicago plans to unveil its $700 million 1.2-million-square-foot Center for Care and Discovery, which will incorporate the latest robotics and other technological advances. The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago—perennially No. 1 on the U.S. News rankings of the country’s best rehab hospitals—is about to embark on an ambitious downtown tower, due for completion in 2016.

And though the planned demolition of the old Bertrand Goldberg–designed Prentice Women’s Hospital has architectural preservationists up in arms (and in the courts), it does show that Northwestern University—the building’s owner—is serious about creating a new state-of-the-art biomedical research facility to support Lurie, the Rehabilitation Institute, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “Our vision is to create one of the great academic medical centers in the country,” says Alan Cubbage, vice president for university relations at Northwestern.

For a closer look at recent and planned hospital upgrades in the city and suburbs, go to And keep this story handy—just in case you need it.