Even for the most diligent shoppers, health care has long been a difficult area. Although scores of Web sites can lead you to a good restaurant or a deal on a TV set, few will help you choose a hospital.

Even for the most diligent shoppers, health care has long been a difficult area. Although scores of Web sites can lead you to a good restaurant or a deal on a TV set, few will help you choose a hospital.

One site worth visiting is the Hospital Compare Web site (www.hospitalcompare.hhs.gov) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

An easy-to-use search tool enables you to find and compare hospitals in your area on 36 criteria, such as the percentage of surgery patients who received the appropriate preventive antibiotic or the percentage of heart attack patients given aspirin at arrival (the recommended practice).

Hospital performance in certain procedures, such as gallbladder removal, angioplasty or female reproductive operations, can be found by searching "Specific Conditions Or Procedures."

And be sure to view the patient assessments of hospitals on criteria such as nighttime noise level, bathroom cleanliness and the communication skills of doctors and nurses.