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Hospital Infections Increase Despite Prevention Campaigns Posted: May 11th, 2010

By Shannon Lee

Shannon Dauphin is a freelance writer and novelist based near Nashville, Tennessee.

Despite campaigns to lower infection rates in the nation's hospitals, a new report from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) found that very little progress had been made toward that goal in recent years. The 2009 National Healthcare Quality Report indicates that in several cases, the rate of hospital infections actually increased.

How bad is the problem of hospital infections?

Up to 98,000 people die from medical errors every year, and a significant percentage of those deaths can be attributed to preventable infections. Though patients expect to receive optimum care in a hospital, as opposed to an outpatient facility, the findings of the latest report are sobering. The report indicates that hospitals may provide patients with higher quality care.

The report is "a pretty clear diagnosis of some of the gaps and shortcomings in our nation's healthcare system," said HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.

A companion study released by HHS found that care for minorities and low-income patients showed continued problems with quality, especially among those who are uninsured.

What are the typical hospital infections?

This year's report found several problems with hospital infections:

  • Overall infections caused by problems with medical care or procedures increased by 1.6 percent.
  • Urinary infections caused by catheter use following surgery rose by 3.6 percent.
  • Infections of the bloodstream after surgery increased by 8 percent.

The incidence of bloodstream infections is perhaps the most troubling of all the statistics, according to Dr. Carolyn Clancy, the head of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. Many bloodstream infections prove to be fatal.

However, any issue with infection is a serious concern for someone who is already in a precarious health situation. "If you are looking at patients who are hospitalized, you are looking at people with multiple underlying conditions," Clancy said. These vulnerable patients "are already fighting for their health on several fronts.

On the bright side, bloodstream infections due to problems with central venous catheters did not increase, and the incidence of surgery-related pneumonia actually decreased by almost 12 percent.

What is being done about the problem?

Careful attention to procedure has proven effective in reducing infections in patients, but the study suggests much more needs to be done. Patients can be proactive by obtaining health insurance long before the need for hospitalization arises.

The government is intervening as well. Under the new health care reform law, Medicare payments to hospitals will be reduced for certain infections or re-admissions that could have been prevented with better nursing care.