How many times do we rely on the Internet to answer life’s little questions, such as which movies to see or where to go for dinner? So, why not use it to help settle some of the bigger questions, like which nursing homes, hospitals and doctors to turn to for our care?  

Four in five Internet users already search the web for information about diseases or medical problems. Taking that one step further and using the Internet to compare health care providers seems perfectly reasonable, as long as you can trust the websites you’re visiting.

Medicare’s “Compare” website fills the bill. It’s a good place to begin your research when looking for a nursing home, hospital, home health agency, dialysis facility or physician.

Nursing Home Compare (medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare) gives you detailed information on 17,000 nursing homes nationwide. You can find out about a facility’s recent health and safety inspections, its staffing levels and how well it prevents problems like urinary tract infections and pressure ulcers. The website uses a star-rating system to point out the differences in quality between nursing homes. The best homes score five stars; the worst receive one.

Hospital Compare (medicare.gov/hospitalcompare) puts 4,700 hospitals under the magnifying glass, allowing you to see how facilities fare on many indicators of quality care. You can learn, for example, how often patients who were admitted to a particular hospital because of heart attacks return within a month of discharge. An unusually low, or high, percentage could say something about how well, or poorly, the hospital treated the problem during the first stay.

In an emergency, you need to go to the nearest hospital. But when you do have time, it’s worth discussing with your doctor which hospital best meets your needs. If you’re considering one facility, you may want to know what recent patients thought of their care. Hospital Compare measures customer satisfaction by using survey responses from patients. You can find out, for instance, how well a hospital’s patients thought the doctors and nurses keep them informed or managed their pain.

Home Health Compare (medicare.gov/homehealthcompare) lets you locate home health care agencies in your area and check on the types of services they offer and the quality of their care. Your doctor, hospital discharge planner or social worker can make some recommendations. But the statistics on Home Health Compare will help you follow up and confirm how well an agency’s patients recover from illnesses or injuries and resume their everyday activities.

Dialysis Facility Compare (medicare.gov/dialysisfacilitycompare) describes all Medicare-certified dialysis facilities. Convenience is important, so look at facilities near your home. Pay close attention to the quality-of-care measures. Some facilities will have higher ratings because of the type of patients they serve. Make sure you understand what the numbers mean before you make a decision.  Ask the dialysis facilities about their quality rating when you visit. And talk to your physician.

Physician Compare (medicare.gov/physiciancompare) allows you to search for doctors who provide Medicare-covered services. You can find basic information about individuals and group practices, such as their business addresses, medical specialties, clinical training and hospital affiliations. You can also check how well certain group practices perform specific tasks, like controlling blood sugar in patients with diabetes. More performance data on doctors will be posted over time.

As helpful as the “Compare” website is, it isn’t meant to be the final word on a nursing home or a hospital or a physician’s quality of care. It’s simply a screening tool that lets you focus on a few providers that interest you, so that you can make an informed decision about your care.

Bob Moos serves as the Southwest regional public affairs officer for the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.