Medicare's new online Nursing Home Compare search engine falls short of making the kind of comparisons you'll really need to make an informed decision, but experts say it is a good start.
What's probably more valuable than the nursing home comparison engine is the wealth of guidance the Medicare Web site feature offers to help you make a nursing home decision off line.
"This is a potentially valuable tool," says Faith Mullen, an analyst with AARP's Public Policy Institute.
"But the data available here are no substitute for visiting a facility in person and talking with the staff as well as families of residents," she added.
Nursing Home Compare provides quality indicator information on 17,000 nursing homes that are Medicare or Medicaid certified. The information is as detailed as revealing the percentage of long-term residents in physical restraints and the percentage unable to perform basic daily tasks. Other indictors show the percentage with bedsores, pain and infections.
For each nursing home, the service also includes the number of beds, type of ownership, summary information about the last state inspection and information about the number of registered nurses, licensed practical or vocational nurses, and nursing assistants.
AARP complained, however, that there are no comparative numbers for the level of staffing. The quality of care can suffer when there isn't sufficient staffing.
An AARP Bulletin reports that other critics say each nursing home is responsible for reporting its own quality indictors, but without sufficient staffing to identify certain problems, it cannot accurately report the full extent of a given problem.
What's more, AARP cites a General Accounting Office report that said 17 percent of nursing homes listed online had four or more positive indicators with no highly negative scores. That could mislead online visitors into believing they are good homes.
All the homes with high ratings had been cited by state authorities for practices that did physical harm to residents, according to the GAO report.
The Medicare online service's extensive nursing home information content helps fill the gap in its comparison shortcomings.
The content includes