Hospital marketing has reached a frenzy. It is nearly impossible to drive around metropolitan areas in the U.S. without being barraged by billboards trumpeting hospitals' cutting-edge technology, luxurious facilities, or the lives of patients they have saved. In many markets, more than one hospital claims a "Top 100," "Top 10," or even "#1" rating for the same type of service. Especially while recalling a day when such advertising would have seemed sordid, it's easy to feel bewildered.

Some of the most important events of our lives, including birth and death, often take place within their walls. We entrust our lives to the nurses, physicians, and other health professionals who populate them. And the services they provide cost a great deal of money -- last year one-third of all healthcare expenditures, or nearly $900 billion. For those who have a choice, how should we determine which hospital is right for us?