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Your Hospital Shouldn't Make You Sick

When you go into the hospital, you probably worry most about whether your treatment is going to work. Will the medicine cure my disease? Will the surgery repair my broken body? But few people ever consider another kind of threat--the threat of hospital-born infection. According to some estimates, about two million people get preventable hospital infections every year. That's not only costly. It's also tragic, since nearly half of those people die.

But there's now some good news to report. A few years ago, Pennsylvania became the first state to require all hospitals to report their preventable infection rate. The first annual report is out and it looks like the infection rate has dropped in the past year. Via the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Hospitals are outsmarting those pesky germs.

The rates of four common hospital-acquired infections dropped from 2006 to 2007 at Pennsylvania hospitals, according to the first report to compare annual infection rates.

The report, released today by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council, said rates of urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and surgical site infections decreased over a one-year period. Overall, the agency reported that 27,949 patients in 2007 picked up infections, compared to 30,237 in 2006, a 7.5 percent decrease.

"The decline in the infection rate from 2006 to 2007 reaffirms that Pennsylvania continues to make progress, and in fact, leads the way on this important public health issue," said David R. Kreider, the council's chairman.


Lisa McGiffert, a consumer advocate, praised the report because it is the first time any state has compared rates among its hospitals. McGiffert said the report can be a tool for patients to gauge quality and assess how hospitals are improving.

"It's a fundamental measure of the quality of their infection control, the quality of their resources, the cleanliness and many other things," she said. "They understand this information can be an indicator of problems within that hospital."

The idea behind the law is that mandatory reporitng would force hospitals to focus on infections, since hospitals with persistently high infection rates are less likely to attract patients. And this initial report--though it represents just one tiny snapshot--offers hope that might actually be happening. 

Of course, requiring more disclosure is not, by itself, sufficient. That's why you hear would-be reformers of the naiton's health care system--including President Obama and Tom Daschle, who will lead Obama's reform efforts--talk about using the reimbursement system to reward hospitals that use surgical checklists and other available, but underutilized, tools for reducing infections.

By the way, that consumer advocate quoted in the article--Lisa McGiffert--is the head of Consumer's Union, a group that's been aggressively promoting legislation to cut down on hospital infections across the country. (They're also the source for those infection figures at the beginning of this post.) You can read more about their work here.

--Jonathan Cohn