Hospitals aren’t supposed to make patients sicker than they already are. In reality, they sometimes do — and always have. By definition, they are full of sick people and nasty microbes.
Each year, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that 648,000 Americans develop an infection while in the hospital; about 75,000 cases prove fatal.
Hospitals have only in recent years had to report such infections as MRSA, a staph bacteria, and C-diff, a gut bacteria which can cause deadly diarrhea and is often seen in long-term-care facilities. Both have become more common, even rampant in some settings, due in large part to overuse or misuse of antibiotics and over-the-counter heartburn medications like Prevacid, Nexium and Prilosec.
So what are your chances of contracting a potentially deadly infection when you are admitted due to an emergency or check in for a knee replacement or other elective procedure? Consumer Reports has crunched the infection reports and — much as it does with everything from new cars to TV sets — rated hospitals at how well they avoid sending patients home with infections.
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Spoiler alert: It’s not good news.
Most hospitals, including major ones in the Tacoma and Seattle area, have room for improvement. Among the hospitals with grades in the bottom category in overall prevention are St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma and Swedish Medical Center (First Hill) and UW Medicine/Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. And St. Joseph was among those receiving the lowest grade for avoiding MRSA infections.
Both St. Joseph and Tacoma General Hospital rated average in the category of avoiding surgical-site infections and above average in avoiding catheter-urinary tract infections.
Larger hospitals — particularly teaching facilities and ones that serve lower-income populations — are more likely to have infection problems and patients who were admitted with existing infections. But Consumer Reports’ broad look at the nation’s hospitals, in which apples generally were compared to apples in a specific time period, does provide valuable information that hospitals should act on.
As a CR spokesperson put it, a low rating should be interpreted as a “red flag” that suggests a hospital may not be following best practices in avoiding infection and should examine its procedures.
Meticulous cleanliness is so important in infection prevention. But also key is stopping the abuse of antibiotics, which has made germs more resistant to treatment and given rise to “superbugs” that are nearly invincible. That’s where individuals must exert responsibility, by not demanding antibiotic prescriptions when they’re not needed and diligently observing dosage instructions when the medication is needed. And doctors must do more to educate patients about the dangers of antibiotic abuse.
The infection reports covered a period from October 2013 to September 2014, and many hospitals have improved their infection-prevention procedures since then. For example, both TG and St. Joseph are now using ultraviolet light machines in addition to existing disinfection measures.
The real story will be how hospitals perform after attention has been focused. Did those that got low ratings take it seriously and put stronger measures in place? Since most of us will, at some point, be treated at a hospital, we can only hope that these facilities will look at Consumer Reports’ findings with an eye toward improving patient safety.