DAMARISCOTTA, Maine — Rural Maine hospitals made a strong showing in a recent national quality care competition, which the president of the Maine Hospital Association said is just another indication of a reality that has been building for years: that Maine hospitals collectively are among the best in the country.

Miles Memorial Hospital in Damariscotta and Sebasticook Valley Hospital in Pittsfield won two out of three of the Leapfrog Group for Patient Safety’s 2011 Top Rural Hospital Awards. Officials from those hospitals said the recognition was reflective of their ongoing efforts to improve operations and outcomes for patients.

“There are an awful lot of awards like this out there for hospitals,” said Scott Shott, spokesman and marketing director for Lincoln County Healthcare, the parent organization for Miles Memorial Hospital. “Some of them have value and are really important and some don’t. This one is a big deal.”

Liisa Janelle, chief human relations officer for Sebasticook Valley Health, which has won the Leapfrog Top Rural Hospital award for two years running, agreed.

“This is probably one of the highest awards in quality for hospitals that’s out there,” she said. “We’re very honored to be part of this group.”

The Leapfrog Group, based in Washington, D.C., is a multimission organization that promotes improvements in the quality, safety and affordability of health care in the United States. It is supported by a range of donations and grants from other organizations, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The group’s Top Hospital awards are given annually.

Steven Michaud, president of the Maine Hospital Association, said the Leapfrog awards are just one indicator of a reality that has been emerging for several years: that Maine hospitals are among the best in the nation. In fact, Michaud said his organization examined new data just last week from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In comparing Maine with other states across four universal categories — patient satisfaction, mortality, readmission rates and process quality — the Pine Tree State ranks first in the nation, he said. That’s on the heels of at least a decade of Maine’s health care system ranking in the top handful of states in a range of areas.

“There’s no question that there’s a difference up here,” Michaud said. “It would be one thing if it was a flash in the pan, but it’s clearly not. This is [the U.S. DHHS’s] data. They’re comparing us against every other state in the nation. It’s a big deal.”

Michaud said just about every hospital in the country received a stark wake-up call about 13 years ago when a federal group published a report identifying quality problems in hospitals. Maine wasn’t alone in its efforts to correct the problems.

“Our people have moved heaven and Earth to change,” he said. “It’s amazing.”

The Leapfrog Group has been giving its Top Hospital awards for 11 years. According to Matt Austin, who directs the organization’s hospital survey project, the end goal of the awards is to encourage hospitals to adopt and employ a range of best practices. He said 1,300 hospitals from across the country participated in the 2011 survey, 218 of which were in the rural hospital category. The survey compiles data on factors such as mortality, hospital-borne infections, patient outcomes, safety practices, patient length-of-stay averages, the use of information technology and the number of specialized staff employed.

“Most hospitals think of themselves as being excellent performers and these awards give them some degree of information to understand where they are at,” Austin said. “These awards really do reflect the best of the best of hospitals.”

There is no set number of Top Hospital awards given out annually by the Leapfrog Group. Austin said winners are recognized for achieving scores in the very top percentage nationwide.

At Miles Memorial Hospital, staff, patients and the community have all been involved in the celebration. A banner waves on the front of the hospital and many employees are wearing Leapfrog buttons on their uniforms, said Shott. The Maine Legislature recently joined in the celebration with a resolution in honor of Miles Memorial.

At Sebasticook Valley Hospital, the celebration has been similar. President and CEO Victoria Alexander-Lane came to work in a frog costume when the organization was notified of the Leapfrog award in December, and chocolate frogs were distributed far and wide.

“We don’t actually set out to win awards; these surveys are just a benchmark for us,” Janelle said. “Quality is our No. 1 value and that’s what we tell all of our employees, regardless of their role here.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.