Bates says, among these steps are adherence to a number of safe practices that have been generally agreed upon within the medical industry to protect patient health. These include such things as more diligent patient evaluation and vaccination of health care workers against disease.
The other is to implement computerized prescribing in order to lessen the impact of medication errors.
"Hospitals, nationally, are financially challenged, and the rate at which they are adopting these practices varies quite a lot," Bates says.
Hence, it appears that some hospitals are better than others when it comes to avoiding potentially deadly errors in treatment. In the HealthGrades study, the nation's top-performing hospitals had a 40 percent lower rate of medical errors when compared with the poorest-performing hospitals.
The study also emphasizes the need for patients to do their homework when choosing a hospital.
"I do think it's important for people to be choosy when they think about what hospital to go to," Bates says, adding that there are also measures that patients can take in order to safeguard their own health.
The Internet is also a useful tool at consumers' fingertips when it comes to selecting a hospital. Sites such as those sponsored by HealthGrades (http://www.healthgrades.com/), as well as the Leapfrog group (http://www.leapfroggroup.org/cp), allow potential patients to search for hospitals in their area and see how they stack up in terms of adherence to safety recommendations.
But Reed says the report is not intended to scare people away from the hospital. She says that in emergency situations or health crises, there is little question that the best place a person can be is at a medical center.
"They should not be afraid to go to the hospital," Reed says. "People who need help should certainly go to the nearest hospital."
But, she adds, patients must do their homework if they want to minimize their risk
"It is important, because of the differences between hospitals, that they do some research."
To further protect themselves, patients should always bring a list of the medications they are taking with them, and they should have someone else, such as a family member or a friend, accompany them to the hospital.
And, Reed says, they should be willing to take a stake in their own well-being.
"It really is important to do your research and become an active participant in your own health care," she says. "People need to make sure they are their own best advocates."