BACKGROUND: A relative dearth of relevant data hampers efforts to demonstrate a link between educational and clinical quality and may preclude residency applicants from identifying programs with the best clinical outcomes. Existing clinical rankings could fill this gap if they are based on sound judgments about quality. METHOD: To explore the potential of the U.S. News & World Report "America's Best Hospitals" clinical rankings in measuring the quality of clinical and learning environments, the author systematically reviewed the U.S. and Canadian literature for 1975 through 2007 regarding quality indicators and teaching hospitals. Individual data elements of the rankings were examined to assess the extent to which they included accepted measures of clinical performance. RESULTS: A total of 187 articles met the inclusion criteria of addressing clinical quality criteria relevant to the rankings and quality assessment in teaching hospitals. Statistical examination of the data underlying the rankings and their relationship with measures of educational and clinical quality showed the rankings are largely based on institutional "prestige." Ranked clinical programs and institutions consistently outperform counterparts on available indices, suggesting that the data elements underlying the rankings may provide valid assessments about the quality of care in educational settings. CONCLUSIONS: Data elements in the rankings can be used to assess clinical and, to a lesser extent, educational quality, but the number of specialties and ranked institutions is too small to have a significant effect on widespread clinical or educational quality, unless ranked institutions serve as sites for the development, study, and dissemination of best practices.
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