Behind the Scenes of the 10 Best Children’s Hospitals

I’ve been waiting for this day for a year. Well, to be precise, 13 months and 4 days. That’s how long it’s been since I started my Parents magazine story on the 10 Best Children’s Hospitals, which was published today. Last night, I was telling my father about it at his birthday dinner, and ever so practical and sincere, he asked me, “Why did it take so long?” I didn’t want to go into it just as the waiter was about to bring out the chocolate cake, but for my father and any of you who read the story or saw it featured on the Today Show this morning, I’ll give you five reasons.

1 There’s very little info available to the public.

When I’ve ranked best cities or even best beaches, I’ve been able to tap into all kinds of public information that helps us determine our winners. The same isn’t true for children’s hospitals. Only a couple pieces of data—like success in doing organ transplants and some results relating to asthma and cystic fibrosis—are available. Almost every bit of data we used to rank the hospitals had to come from a survey of the hospitals themselves.

2 I asked for loads of advice.

To come up with the questions for the survey, I tapped doctors, nurses, patient-safety experts, various types of therapists, and, of course, parents of sick children. Some of the suggestions I heard: A cancer expert urged me to ask about “MIBG therapy,” a promising treatment for neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer. A patient-safety expert told me it wasn’t enough to a hospital to have an electronic medical record—a way to cut back on medication mistakes–it had to be fully implemented in all units. A family advocate asked me to find out whether “Child Life services”—therapists who distract, educate, and entertain patients and their families—were available for kids who come to the hospital as outpatients to get chemo or dialysis. And then a mom, who actually lost her sweet child to cancer, told me that all she wanted during those grueling hospital stays besides a cure, of course, was a shower that was in or near her child’s room rather than down a long hall. In the end, we asked hospitals 179 questions, and most of them had several parts.

3  And then I asked again.

After gathering all the suggestions for questions and coming out with a survey, we had to figure out how we were going to grade it. In other words, is the shower more or less important than the Child Life specialist? Is having a low infection rate better than, say, having a state-of-the-art system to catch medication errors? Is having a short wait time in the emergency department worth more or less than having a short wait time for an autism appointment? Is having a great research program with lots of experimental studies just as vital as having a lot of experience doing tricky procedures? We had to sort out all that!  And, as you can imagine, we got lots of different opinions. We also decided that in addition to ranking the survey overall, we’d do it in six specialty areas: cancer care, preemie care, emergency care, orthopedic care, heart care, and pulmonary care.

4 It hit home.

Before sending out the survey to the children’s hospitals, my daughter, Katie, told me that her friend from school was going to be admitted to a children’s hospitals. Katie asked me:  ”She says she’s not scared because the hospital is fun. Mom, how can a hospital be fun?” Off to think again about how we’re going to grade this!

5 Parents inspired me.

Once all the numbers were crunched and we had our winners, I spent a month or so reporting the story. While I was relieved to no longer be looking at Excel spreadsheets, the phone conversations with parents from the top hospitals were gut-wrenching. They cried. I cried. Then I met the Whiteheads, a family whose daughter a year ago this month was dying of leukemia. When doctors at her local hospital said there was nothing else that they could do for her, the family had two choices: hospice care or The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP). The Whiteheads chose CHOP, and have a spunky seven-year-old who outraced our entire photo crew  during a photo shoot at the hospital. Emma’s dad, Tom, texted me this morning: “Great article and pictures!” Then Emma’s mom, Kari, posted it on Emma’s inspirational Facebook page. I hope that you’ll share the story too!

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  1. by Ali Koide

    On February 4, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    Hi, Thanks for the Top 10 list of children’s hospitals! I find it really interesting. I’m curious to know how many children’s hospitals you spoke with?


  2. by Gail

    On February 4, 2013 at 10:43 pm

    I love the story behind the story–such an incredible amount of work and thought behind this important project. Thank you for sharing it!