If you want to keep a clean bill of health, check your hospital bills, says a new Consumer Reportsstudy on hospital care. Billing errors can spread faster than a staph infection if you're not vigilant.

The magazine surveyed more than 21,000 readers about the hospital care they received in 2001. Seventy-eight percent were happy with the care they received -- higher than Consumer Reports respondents have rated service in banks, restaurants, and hotel chains. The other 22% complained of unanswered calls for assistance, inadequate pain relief, pressure to leave the hospital too soon, or recovery prolonged by complications caused by the hospitalization.

When it comes to billing, though, 5% of the 11,000 patients who reviewed their itemized hospital bills found major errors. As if getting sick weren't taxing enough, those who shelled out $2,000 or more out of pocket for their care were twice as likely to find billing boo-boos, the study shows.

The most common billing blunders include "upcoding" (charging patients for more costly procedures); incorrect basic charges as a result of keystroke errors or being billed for cancelled work; charges for individual tests that should've been combined (called "unbundled charges"); and overcharging for operating room time, which is calculated by the hour. In addition to being costly, medical bills are a common malady marring credit records.

How to catch the ouchies? The watchdog publication suggests performing an autopsy of your bill.

  • Familiarize yourself with your health insurance -- what it covers and what it excludes. If you need help interpreting your coverage, ask your employer's human resources department to help.

  • If possible, get estimates from doctors, the hospital, and other providers to brace for the cost of care.

  • Keep a log of procedures and medications. If you're too loopy, ask family or friends to help out.

  • Compare your insurance statements and personal care records to your bills.

  • Check for the most common billing errors (listed above).

  • If you find errors, try to correct them with the hospital billing department, and contact the consumer protection office of your state attorney general.

The magazine lists other resources to help consumers get the best care, including Consumers' CHECKBOOK, Hospital Report Cards, Health Grades, and Health Care Choices.