Hospitals Prove Infection Control Works

It’s an unfunny truism that if you want to avoid getting sick, stay out of the hospital. But that may be starting to change for the better.

The unacceptably high number of hospital patients who contract an infection after admission has long been in the news. We have covered the topic frequently.

According to federal estimates, 1 in 20 people admitted to a U.S. hospital develops an infection – or about 1.7 million people every year. Such infections represent a top 10 cause of death in this country; approximately 99,000 people die annually from hospital infections, at a health-care cost of $33 billion.

Scrutiny of this problem has generated policy changes – Medicare, for example, no longer foots the bill when inpatients are infected by microbes from catheters and intravenous lines. And, per the new federal health-care legislation (the Affordable Care Act), soon subsidies will be withheld to hospitals that fail to reduce their infection rates.

In a bit of good news from this patient safety front, many hospitals have committed to solving the problem and boast demonstrable results. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, a three-year campaign to reduce the incidence of hospital infections in California has saved lives, cut costs and institutionalized best practices to ensure continued vigilance and good results.

At the midway point of the campaign, the program has seen reductions of:

  • ventilator-associated pneumonia by 41%;
  • catheter-related urinary tract infections by 24%;
  • blood poisoning by 11%.

About $11 million has been saved, and about 800 lives.

The health threat is particularly acute these days, thanks to the increasing use of outpatient clinics. That means hospitals are reserved for the sickest patients, and the sicker the patient, the more vulnerable he or she is to infection.

In California, Anthem Blue Cross is often the target of consumer and health advocates who have challenged its substantial health-care premium increases and its history of questionable recissions (dropping policyholders from coverage after the discovery of an expensive medical condition). But even this often soulless corporate entity acknowledges the unacceptable cost of hospital infections, and has funded the statewide Patient Safety First program with $6 million.

The company says it has recouped nearly double its investment in the program through reduced health-care spending. And its corporate parent, WellPoint, Inc., says it won’t increase payments to hospitals in 14 states that don’t meet its standards of infection control, readmission rates and other practices.

Some of the program elements employed by hospitals are:

  • establishing and following safety checklists and documenting every step;
  • frequent hand-washing by staff;
  • more frequent brushing of patients’ teeth;
  • enlisting respiratory therapists to swab the mouths of patients on ventilators several times a day;
  • eliminating unnecessary procedures.

If you or a loved one is to be admitted to a hospital, ask if it has an infection-control checklist, and if so, ask to see it. After admission, make sure staff members wash their hands before they tend to you or your loved one. Ask when catheters and ventilators were last sanitized. Hospitals that care about your safety should not object to such scrutiny
As Dr. James Cleeman, an expert on health-care quality, told the L.A. Times, “Nobody should go into a hospital and wind up sicker than when they went in.”

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