Promoting Honest Counting of Hospital-Acquired Infections

Progress is being made in the national effort to let patients know which hospitals do the best job in preventing infections. But patient safety advocates are worried that some of the early reports of hospital-specific data may be overly rosy because of fudging in the way that infections are counted.

Last week we wrote about how infections acquired from intensive care units are more dangerous for children than adults. Most hospitals have made progress in addressing the issue of infection control, and a report issued recently by the Department of Health and Human Services promotes transparency in that effort.

HHS compared hospital ICUs across the country in terms of central line associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs), which research shows are highly deadly but highly preventable with good care. The information for each hospital is posted on the federal Hospital Compare website, updated quarterly. In the future, infections in addition to CLABSIs will be included.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 18,000 patients developed CLABSIs in the ICU in 2009. As many as 1 in 4 of these patients die. The CDC death toll for all hospital-acquired infections is estimated at 100,000 annually; such infections might cost as much as $45 billion.

Consumer advocates, including the Safe Patient Project of Consumers Union, lobbied for years to enable a hospital infection-tracking system. That organization estimates that 2 million patients a year contract an infection in the hospital.

Since January 2011, hospitals have been required to report ICU-acquired CLABSIs to the CDC in order to receive payment from Medicare. Most states that require infection reports use the same system.

As part of the national campaign, a recent California report was rosy: According to California Watch, rates of infections from catheters are nearly half the national average. But there’s a caveat here that other states embrace as well: Hospitals might be under-reporting the incidence of infections. State authorities are reviewing results of an in-depth infection-reporting audit of four types of infections reported by 100 hospitals. But a lack of funding compromises its ability to fully vet all hospital-generated reports.

As Consumers Union noted, the new reporting requirements apply to hospitals that participate in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) “pay-for-reporting” program for all patients, not just those covered by Medicare. Most U.S. hospitals participate because their Medicare payments are higher.

To determine how well your hospital stacks up in the infection-control department using Hospital Compare, Lisa McGiffert of Consumers Union advised comparing its rank with the national benchmark. “If your hospital is no different than the national benchmark, that means too many patients are still suffering and dying from infections that could have been prevented with better care,” she said. “The benchmark for success that hospitals should be striving to reach is zero.”

Reports on surgical site infections will begin in 2013. The CDC estimates that such infections account for 1 in 5 hospital-acquired infections. Catheter-associated urinary tract infections also will be tallied as of 2013.

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