There have formed alliances between community hospitals and some of the nation’s biggest and most respected institutions lately. For prospective patients, it can be hard to assess what these relationships actually mean and whether they matter according to a Kaiser Group Article. A Washington-based patient safety organization that grades hospitals based on data involving medical errors (malpractice) and best practices, cautions that affiliation with a famous name is not a guarantee of quality. Brand names don’t always signify the highest quality of care.

Affiliation agreements are “essentially benefit by association, ” said Gerard Anderson, a professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In some cases it’s purely branding and in other cases it’s a deep association.” A key question is “how often does the community hospital interact with the flagship hospital? If it’s once a week, that’s one thing. If it’s almost never, that’s another,” Anderson said.

To expand their reach, flagship hospitals including Mayo, the Cleveland Clinic and Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center have signed affiliation agreements with smaller hospitals around the country. These agreements, which can involve different levels of clinical integration, typically grant community hospitals access to experts and specialized services at the larger hospitals while allowing them to remain independently owned and operated. For community hospitals, a primary goal of the brand name affiliation is stemming the loss of patients to local competitors.

In return, large hospitals receive new sources of patients for clinical trials and for the highly specialized services that distinguish these “destination medicine” sites. Affiliations also boost their name recognition — all without having to establish a physical presence. New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has embraced a hybrid strategy. It operates a ring of facilities surrounding Manhattan and has forged alliances with three partners in Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Florida.

Local hospitals may be better able to retain patients by getting a name brand they can use. This gives the impression that they are qualified in what they do. Doctors can obtain speedy second opinions for their patients and streamline visits for those with complex or unusual medical needs, processes that can be daunting and difficult without connections. The arrangement seeks to elevate the quality of cancer care by forming partnerships with well known specialty hospitals to keep patients at home and provide the imprimatur of MD Anderson.” At some, the association is just not just a branding affiliation, but a deep clinical affiliation. Although affiliation agreements differ, many involve payment of an annual fee by smaller hospitals. Acceptance is preceded by site visits and vetting of the community hospitals’ staff and operations. Strict guidelines control use of the flagship name.

For patients considering a hospital that has such an affiliation it is wise to check ratings from a variety of sources, among them Leapfrog, Medicare, and Consumer Reports, and not just rely on reputation. Such alliances can work well for patients if properlly operated. We at Medwitness, Ltd. advise that notwithstanding any brand name it is always important to carefully check out what your doctor and the medical facility are doing on your case. The fact is that medical malpractice can occur anywhere. It is also important to be diligent with respect to medical and professional fees which can vary widely.