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Fewer People Are Getting Infections In Hospitals, But Many Still Die

NPR icon by Richard Harris
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Hospital-acquired infections continue to be a big problem in health care, with 4 percent of patients getting a new infection while hospitalized, a study finds. And 11 percent of those infections turn deadly.

It's the first time that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has attempted to catalog all hospital infections, not just the infections with germs on their watch list. Researchers surveyed 183 hospitals nationwide, emphasizing smaller community hospitals.

"Although there has been some progress, today and every day, more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections will die during their hospital stay," said the CDC's director, Dr. Tom Frieden. That translates to more than 70,000 deaths a year caused by hospital infections.

The finding suggests that hospitals could reduce their pneumonia rates by doing more to prevent patients from inhaling food particles, a known cause of the lung ailment. So there are clues in this study that can improve treatment.

But the overall numbers show there's still a long way to go. The 2011 survey, published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that 4 percent of people hospitalized picked up an infection, and of those, about 11 percent died.

"One of the most common things affecting patients in the survey was pneumonia," says Dr. Michael Bell, deputy director of the division of health care quality promotion at the CDC. The centers had already been tracking pneumonias that occur in people who are on mechanical ventilators. But, it turns out, "a good proportion of it was pneumonias in patients who were not in the intensive care unit."

Some gains have been made in certain procedures, Bell says — for example, when physicians or nurses insert a catheter tube.

"By doing things right when you put the catheter in," he says, "we can drive down infection rates because of those catheters by 70 percent."

But those specific improvements still leave hospital patients at significant risk.

"It's sobering to realize that despite all those efforts we still have this level of problem," says Dr. Brad Spellberg at the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. And it won't be an easy fix, he says. "If we depend on changing human behavior as the only implementation tool to prevent infections, we're going to plateau."

Instead, Spellberg argues we need new germ-killing technology, including new vaccines that target common hospital infections.

"We need to be much better as a health care delivery system in this country at preventing hospital admissions and getting people out of hospitals much faster," Spellberg says, "because if you're not in the hospital, you won't get a health care-associated infection."

He congratulates the CDC for finally finding the money to do a broad survey like this. But Europe, he notes, conducts this kind of survey on an ongoing basis. Patients, as well as health care researchers, can go online any time to see annual statistics for hospital infections. He says that's what we need in the United States.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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