THE GOVERNMENT'S FIGURES ON HOSPITAL DEATH RATES SUGGEST NEW QUESTIONS FOR PATIENTS TO ASK BEFORE ENTERING A HOSPITAL. DOCTORS, NURSES AND OTHER EXPERTS RECOMMEND:

Unless there is an emergency or other need for immediate hospitalization, make sure you really need to go to the hospital. Ask your doctor: Are there any alternatives? Can I be treated as well outside the hospital? Ask your doctor which hospital he or she recommends. And why. Find out how that hospital fared in the government report. Look at the hospital's overall death rate for all Medicare patients and, if included, the death rate in the category for which you're to be treated. If the hospital's death rates are outside or near the top of the acceptable range the government calculates (based on national averages), ask your doctor about it. Talk to anyone else who knows something about the hospital: other doctors, nurses or anyone who works there; friends or others who have been patients. See what they think of: (1) the staff's expertise; (2) the quality of caring. Ask, too: Is this hospital a center for the treatment you need. Studies show that hospitals that treat many patients of a particular kind generally have more favorable outcomes. If you must be hospitalized, prepare to look out for yourself -- or, if you're too sick to do so, try to have a friend or family member visit frequently. The best hospitals make mistakes. You need to be sure you're getting the medications your doctor ordered, not someone's else; that you're not wheeled off to get a complicated test intended for some other patient; that you get the tests and treatments your doctor did order. Ask your doctor how often, and at what time of day, he or she will ordinarily see you. Ask how long you will probably need to be hospitalized. Prepare to go home as soon as possible. Unless you truly need hospital attention, homes are safer places. To get the mortality figures for any hospital, phone or write the area Peer Review Organization (PRO), which monitors care of Medicare patients for the government. :: For the District and Maryland: Delmarva Foundation for Medical Care, 341-B N. Aurora St., Easton, Md. 21601; (301) 822-0697. :: For Virginia: Medical Society of Virginia Review Organization, 1904 Byrd Av., Room 120, PO Box 6569, Richmond, Va. 23230; (804) 289-5320. :: In late January the Washington Consumers' Checkbook organization plans to reprint most of the nationwide statistics in a 250-page "Consumers' Guide to Hospitals." Send $10 (including mailing costs) to: Checkbook, 806 15th St. NW., Washington, D.C. 20005. :: Public libraries should be stocking either the massive seven-volume government report ("Medicare Hospital Mortality Information") or the Checkbook version. The entire set can be purchased from the Superintendent of Documents, Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402-9325. (Seven volumes, $69.)