We are. Since 1946, the American Hospital Association has documented hospitals' services, utilization, personnel and finances, and today the AHA Annual Survey includes more than 1,000 data items—all of which adds up to a unique, detailed look at American hospitals.

Most hospitals now complete the Annual Survey online. More than 6,500 hospitals throughout the United States and associated areas are profiled. Additional special surveys are conducted to track the current health care landscape in such areas as IT, governance and diversity in a more detailed manner than the Annual Survey can.

Over time, the AHA database has measured the pulse of our evolving delivery system, and it plays a critical role in better understanding hospital operations in an ever-shifting environment. As the system has changed, so have the questions. The survey has incorporated new fields to report the role of physicians within hospitals, the expanding continuum of care, new service lines and evolving technologies, such as robotic surgery, multislice, spiral computed tomography and a range of endoscopic services.

Hospital participation has been extremely high, reaching more than 80 percent on average. This is an astounding level of participation for a voluntary national information request that in many instances is complicated and time-consuming.

The survey would not be successful without the significant effort of all hospitals. We know that hospitals have expended countless hours on data retrieval and verification prior to submission.

Other parties—namely, state hospital associations—have played instrumental roles. The state associations actively encourage their hospitals to participate. In many instances, they also directly assist the AHA by collecting and validating responses.

Is it worth all the effort? Absolutely, given the part data play in the AHA's mission to improve the delivery of health care. While this important connection is not always obvious, it is a key driver of the survey. Data collected over the years have provided critical support in the representation and advocacy of hospitals and has allowed us to tell the hospital story.

Hospitals participating in these surveys deserve our continuing appreciation. The time and valuable resources committed to the collection of information have been phenomenal. Through these efforts, the AHA provides a true national data resource that has been used by many for a variety of purposes.

The survey responses have been used to monitor forms of interprovider linkages, form networks of care focusing on the care continuum, document the dramatic shift away from inpatient to outpatient models of care, examine the reduction of the length of stay across time, control costs and spending growth, increase efforts to better understand the overall health care needs of their communities, and adopt an electronic health record.

Because of various reform initiatives, health care is in the midst of even more changes that aren't altogether clear today. As in the past, we believe the role data will play in finding solutions in the transforming environment will be more important than ever.

Peter Kralovec is senior director of the Health Care Data Center and Christy Remedios is executive director of coding and data development.

For additional information on AHA Data, visit www.ahadata.com.