By definition, emergency rooms aren't the best vehicles for consumer empowerment. If you have a critical or can't-wait-for-an-appointment medical issue, you're likely to call 911 or get yourself to the nearest ER.

Still, it's worthwhile to note the results of Consumer Checkbook's ratings of area emergency rooms, appearing in the spring/summer 2004 issue ($10; www.checkbook.org or 202-347-7283).

The survey uses data from around 5,000 questionnaire responses by readers and other consumers who had used the services of local ERs.

Based on the data, along with other hospital ratings the publication has previously gathered, the Checkbook editors declare the emergency departments of the following hospitals as top-rated for both simple and complex medical problems. They are listed in alphabetical order:

* Children's National Medical Center, D.C.

* Georgetown University Hospital, D.C.

* Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring

* Inova Fairfax Hospital, Falls Church

* Sibley Memorial Hospital, D.C.

* Suburban Hospital, Bethesda

* Virginia Hospital Center, Arlington

* Washington Hospital Center, D.C.

For the most serious injuries, doctors gave highest ratings to Inova Fairfax and Washington Hospital Center, both of which have "level 1 trauma center" designation, meaning they are equipped to handle the most difficult trauma cases.