The Health Care Financing Administration (HCFA) publishes hospital mortality rates each year. We undertook a study to identify characteristics of hospitals associated with variations in these rates. To do so, we obtained data on 3100 hospitals from the 1986 HCFA mortality study and the American Hospital Association's 1986 annual survey of hospitals. The mortality rates were adjusted for each hospital's case mix and other characteristics of its patients. The mortality rate for all hospitalizations was 116 per 1000 patients. Adjusted mortality rates were significantly higher for for-profit hospitals (121 per 1000) and public hospitals (120 per 1000) than for private not-for-profit hospitals (114 per 1000; P less than 0.0001 for both comparisons). Osteopathic hospitals also had an adjusted mortality rate that was significantly higher than average (129 per 1000; P less than 0.0001). Private teaching hospitals had a significantly lower adjusted mortality rate (108 per 1000) than private nonteaching hospitals (116 per 1000; P less than 0.0001). Adjusted mortality rates were also compared for hospitals in the upper and lower fourths of the sample in terms of certain hospital characteristics. The mortality rates were 112 and 121 per 1000 for the hospitals in the upper and lower fourths, respectively, in terms of the percentage of physicians who were board-certified specialists (P less than 0.0001), 112 and 120 per 1000 for occupancy rate (P less than 0.0001), 113 and 120 per 1000 for payroll expenses per hospital bed (P less than 0.0001), and 113 and 119 per 1000 for the percentage of nurses who were registered (P less than 0.0001).