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.

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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.

1. Northwestern Memorial Hospital

Location: Chicago (Downtown)
Beds: 894
Specialties in the top 20 nationally: Cardiology and heart surgery; diabetes and endocrinology; ear, nose, and throat; gastroenterology; geriatrics; gynecology; neurology and neurosurgery; orthopedics; pulmonology; urology
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: Cancer, nephrology

Why did Northwestern land at the top of Chicago’s list—and why should you choose it to handle your next health crisis? Here’s one reason: “They pair strong primary care with great specialty care,” says David Burik, the managing director for the health care strategy division at Chicago-based Navigant Consulting, which advises hospitals and other businesses.

The quality of that care rests squarely on the shoulders of its first-rate physicians. They include Patrick McCarthy, a heart surgeon recruited from the Cleveland Clinic who now runs the Bluhm Cardiovascular Institute at Northwestern. The hospital also hosts an outstanding women’s center—the new and improved Prentice—and the Robert H. Lurie Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Its academic wing provides access to the latest medical research (such as an ALS breakthrough made in 2010 by the neurologist Teepu Siddique), and it’s got some great neighbors: the world-renowned Rehabilitation Institute and the new Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital.

The year-old $654 million hospital building at Rush

2. Rush University Medical Center

Location: Chicago (Near West Side)
Beds: 748
Specialties in the top 20 nationally: Geriatrics, nephrology, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopedics
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: Cardiology and heart surgery; diabetes and endocrinology; ear, nose, and throat; gastroenterology; gynecology; pulmonology; urology

With its roots going back to 1837—the year Chicago was incorporated—Rush claims several city firsts: the first cardiac catheterization lab, the first MRI scanner, and the first successful heart transplant. Today, the medical center is still celebrated for its cardiovascular care, and its Heart Center for Women, led by Dr. Annabelle Volgman, has won praise for its gender-specific expertise. Rush is also well known for its Alzheimer’s center and its Parkinson’s and orthopedic programs (doctors from Rush are team physicians for the Bulls and the White Sox).

In late 2011, Rush opened a new 14-story hospital building with larger operating rooms and a distinctive butterfly shape that provides clear sightlines from nursing stations to each patient’s room. The new emergency center, equipped to deal with disastrous cases of chemical contamination or infectious outbreak, is tied into the city’s 911 center and trauma network. And last year, this teaching hospital approved more than 700 new research projects to augment the 1,000-plus already underway.

Photograph: Jim Steinkamp

An ICU nursing station at the Center for Care and Discovery, scheduled to open in February

3. University of Chicago Medicine

Location: Chicago (South Side)
Beds: 568
Specialties in the top 20 nationally: Cancer, gastroenterology
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: eurology and neurosurgery

A strong teaching and research hospital—second only to Stanford University School of Medicine in the dollar amount of grants per faculty member ($328,000 in 2011) from the National Institutes of Health—University of Chicago Medicine is on the verge of a new era. “They have always had a great tradition of subspecialty expertise, and now they’re marrying that with a state-of-the-art facility,” says the hospital consultant David Burik.

That facility would be the new $700 million Center for Care and Discovery, slated to open in February. It will feature 240 private rooms and an emphasis on flexibility that will, say, allow an interventional cardiology suite to morph into an operating room for open-heart surgery—all without having to move the patient.

South Side residents from across the socioeconomic spectrum—as well as visitors from around the world—are already being served by the Comprehensive Cancer Center (which emphasizes prevention, early detection, and targeted therapies) and the seven-year-old Comer Children’s Hospital.

Photograph: Tom Rossiter

Dr. Kyra Payne, a geriatric specialist, consults with a patient.

4. Advocate Christ Medical Center

Location: Oak Lawn
Beds: 690
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: Cardiology and heart surgery, geriatrics

A fixture of the south suburbs for more than 50 years, Christ Medical—another teaching hospital—is home to the Heart and Vascular Institute, which features top doctors and modern technologies for treating coronary artery disease, heart rhythm problems, and other critical illnesses.

Christ Medical has also won high praise for its geriatric program, which promotes an independent lifestyle for the elderly. At the other end of the age spectrum, Hope Children’s Hospital, which shares the Oak Lawn campus, excels at juvenile heart and cancer care. Last October, it merged with the pediatric hospital at Advocate Lutheran General in Park Ridge. Now known as Advocate Children’s Hospital, it offers access to more than 400 pediatricians and 230 subspecialists.

Photograph: Anna Knott

Heart doctors Ferdinand Maya (left) and Mamdouh Bakhos

5. Loyola University Medical Center

Location: Maywood
Beds: 569
Specialties in the top 20 nationally: Cardiology and heart surgery

Loyola deserves its reputation as a standout in cardiac care—and not just on the clinical side. Over the years, the American Heart Association alone has awarded the medical center more than $10 million for research into ways, as the AHA puts it, “to build lives free of cardiovascular disease.”

But hearts are far from Loyola’s only area of expertise. Last May, for the fourth year in a row, the American Stroke Association honored the medical center for its multidisciplinary approach to treating that often-fatal affliction.

You will find help, too, dealing with other serious health problems: Dr. Pauline Camacho, leader of the Osteoporosis and Metabolic Bone Disease Center, coauthored the national guidelines for diagnosing and treating osteoporosis. And last spring, the American College of Surgeons honored the Cardinal Bernardin Cancer Center for its “outstanding” oncologic care.

Photograph: Bart Harris

The hospital's urban setting drives its mission

6. University of Illinois Hospital & Health Sciences System

Location: Chicago (Near West Side)
Beds: 495

A high performer in cancer and urologic care, this inner-city medical center also stands out as a socially conscious institution. “Part of our mission is the elimination of health disparities,” says Dr. Joe G. N. “Skip” Garcia, vice president for health affairs at the hospital (he’s also a leader in the treatment of and research into lung disorders).

Looking for ways to reduce deaths from preventable medical errors, in 2006 two doctors—David Mayer and Timothy McDonald—established the Institute for Patient Safety Excellence. With help from a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the innovative program, which uses games, role-playing, and simulation exercises to teach teamwork and communication skills, now serves as a model for medical schools nationwide.

Photograph: UIC

Hunting down gastroenterologic cancer

7. NorthShore Evanston Hospital

Location: Evanston
Beds: 354
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: Gastroenterology, gynecology

Evanston Hospital anchors the NorthShore University HealthSystem (which also includes Glenbrook, Highland Park, and Skokie Hospitals). That means when you choose it to address your medical problems, you will find yourself with access not just to the primary care and specialty physicians at Evanston but to each of the 800-plus doctors who work for the health system. “NorthShore is able to recruit great physicians,” says the hospital consultant David Burik, explaining one of its strengths.

Evanston also pairs with the University of Chicago to teach medical students and spur academic research, and last fall it announced a partnership with the Mayo Clinic. That doesn’t mean you have to travel to Minnesota for a consultation. Instead, teams of doctors at both places review electronic medical records together, so in most cases you remain close to home.

Photograph: Jon Hillenbrand

An orthopedic OR at Central DuPage

8. Central DuPage Hospital

Location: Winfield
Beds: 313
Specialties in the top 50 nationally: Orthopedics

Unlike the seven medical institutions ranked above it on Chicago’s list, Central DuPage (part of the Cadence Health System) is not a teaching hospital. No problem, says Dr. David Cooke, Cadence’s vice president of quality and safety. “Our attitude is we’re going to have to prove ourselves, and we’re happy to do that.”

Part of the proof shows up on the tech side—an array of facilities you might expect to find only at Central’s big-name counterparts downtown: electronic medical records, 64-slice computer tomography, the minimally invasive da Vinci robotic surgical system, and proton radiation therapy.

To better treat kids, Central partners with physicians from Lurie’s Children’s Hospital, who make the drive out from Chicago so the little ones can stay close to home. And staff consult with the Cleveland Clinic on complicated heart and cancer cases. “They’re tremendously generous with their intellectual capital,” says Cooke.

Photograph: Courtesy of Cadence Health

Women's health care is a mainstay here

9. Advocate Lutheran General Hospital

Location: Park Ridge
Beds: 638

If you are a woman living in the northwest suburbs, you may find yourself drawn to Lutheran General for different reasons. Its Center for Fetal Care treats expectant mothers who have hypertension, heart disease, or diabetes; its perinatologists deal with high-risk pregnancies where a fetus may have a serious medical condition. The Caldwell Breast Center was the first hospital in the Midwest to offer 3-D mammography, and it has advanced treatments—including accelerated partial breast radiation therapy—to eradicate cancer and stop it from returning.

As for women and men seeking minimally invasive procedures: Specialists provide a range of robotic surgeries, with an emphasis on uterine, prostate, and colorectal care.

Photograph: John Martin-Eatinger/Advocate Media Center

Stained glass in the lobby conveys a spiritual focus.

10. Alexian Brothers Medical Center

Location: Elk Grove Village
Beds: 387

If you think spirituality is a key ingredient to recovering from illness, you may want to make a pilgrimage to this northwest suburban hospital, part of the Alexian Brothers Health System. A Catholic organization, it goes out of its way to work with patients of all faiths. That doesn’t mean Alexian neglects its medical responsibilities. “It is really focused on getting its primary care physicians in place,” says the health care consultant David Burik. “That’s always been a hallmark of the hospital.”

Also on the Hoffman Estates campus: a rehabilitation hospital with inpatient and outpatient services and a behavioral health hospital, which offers help with autism, addiction, and eating disorders. Coming this summer: a 16-bed end-of-life hospice that will allow patients to die with dignity.

Photograph: David Pflederer

Women's health care is a mainstay here.

11. Presence St. Joseph Medical Center

Location: Joliet
Beds: 480

In 2011, this Will County medical center was a founding member of the 12-hospital Presence Health group—which means its reach, and potential for collaborative care, extend into nearly every part of the Chicago metro area. But according to Navigant’s David Burik, the hospital already has a very complete medical staff. “They have strong subspecialties”—in cancer, neurology, and orthopedics, among other disciplines—“to serve the far south suburbs,” he says.

And if you are a Joliet resident concerned about diminished health care since Silver Cross Hospital decamped for New Lenox last February, stop worrying, says Burik. “Presence St. Joseph has a huge task confronting it [with that potentially larger patient load], but they have the doctors and the capacity to make it work.”

Photograph: Mike Hudson

Pediatricians discuss a case.

12. Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center

Location: Chicago (North Side)
Beds: 408

Though it’s part of Advocate Health Care, you may find that Illinois Masonic has the feel of an old-fashioned community hospital—only the community it serves is the bustling Lake View neighborhood, and its services and facilities are state of the art. Sure, it offers an alternative birthing center and one of the city’s oldest nurse-midwifery programs. But it’s also home to a Level III neonatal intensive care unit, which means it’s prepared to handle the riskiest pregnancies and the sickest babies.

And then there’s this: Illinois Masonic is one of Chicago’s four Level I trauma centers, ready for

Photograph: Courtesy of Advocate Media Center

How Chicago Ranked the Hospitals

To winnow down the list of the 97 hospitals in the six-county metro area, we started with the 25 that ranked highest on the 2012 U.S. News & World Report list of the nation’s best (see details at, excluding specialty hospitals. For each, we analyzed and weighted data as follows to arrive at a total score.

The estimated percentage of Medicare patients with one of three conditions—heart attack, heart failure, or pneumonia—who died within 30 days of admission between July 1, 2008, and June 30, 2011, adjusting for the severity of each patient’s condition. Source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services

The ability of each institution to handle complex or difficult cases, according to chief medical officers (or doctors in a similar position) at top Chicago-area hospitals. Source: A fall 2012 Chicago poll

Facilities and services.
The percentage of 138 key offerings, from Alzheimer’s care to multislice spiral computed tomography, available at each hospital as of 2011. (Data for Rush University Medical Center were updated to reflect its 2012 expansion.) Source: American Hospital Association

The ratio of registered nurse hours per patient day for critical care and regular hospital patients as of fall 2011. Source: Illinois Department of Public Health

The hospital’s 2012 ratings on three key safety measures: preventing medication errors, taking steps to avoid harm, and managing serious errors. Source: Leapfrog Group