November 18th, 2006

Hospitals are not healthy

A recent op-ed in the New York Times reminds us again that a hospital is not just a good place to get better, but also a great place to get sick. That’s not being cute, but simply reminding us that about 100,000 people die each year from infections they acquire in the hospital. The author of the column, former lieutenant governor of New York Betsy McCaughey, points out that this is five times as many as die of AIDS in this country.

The killer bacteria are known as MRSA., or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. MRSA, which by definition is resistant to antibiotics, increased in the United States by 32 times from 1976 to 2003, according to the Centers for Disease Control. While staph infections comprised only 2% percent of hospital infections in 1976, it is now 60 %.

Infections are carried from patient to patient due to sloppy institutional practices, as germs travel on gowns, gloves, bedrails, stethoscopes, wheelchairs and even blood pressure cuffs. Prevention comes in the form of testing people for the bacteria that causes the problem, and isolating those individuals. The cost of illness and death vastly outpaces the cost of testing.

The sad truth is that so many of these infections and deaths are preventable. Other developed nations, faced with rapid growth of the problem, have nearly eradicated it with testing.

Ms. McCaughey, who is also the founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, writes:

Treating hospital infections costs an estimated $30.5 billion a year in the United States. Prevention, on the other hand, is inexpensive and requires no capital outlays. A pilot program at the University of Pittsburgh found that screening tests, gowns and other precautions cost only $35,000 a year, and saved more than $800,000 a year in infection costs. A review of similar cost analyses, published in The Lancet in September, concluded that M.R.S.A. screening increases hospital profits — as it saves lives.

The failure to take proper preventative measures is institutional malpractice, and has caused extraordinary suffering and loss. Must hospitals wait to be hit by juries with large liability awards before they change their conduct?