This week, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued two reports that are simultaneously scary and encouraging.
First, the scary news: A national survey conducted in 2011 found that one in every 25 U.S. hospital patients experienced a healthcare-associated infection. That’s 648,000 patients with a combined 722,000 infections.
About 75,000 of those patients died during their hospitalizations, although it’s unknown how many of those deaths resulted from the infections, the CDC researchers reported in the New England Journal of Medicine.
On the bright side, those numbers are less than half the number of hospital-acquired infections that a national survey estimated in 2007. And a second report issued this week found significant decreases in several infection types that have seen the most focused prevention efforts on a national scale.
Noteworthy was a 44 percent decrease in central line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSI) between 2008 and 2012, as well as a 20 percent reduction in infections related to 10 surgical procedures over the same time period.
These infections were once thought to be inevitable, resulting from patients who were too old, too sick or just plain unlucky. We now know that we can put a significant dent in these events, and even achieve zero infections among the most vulnerable patients.
At Johns Hopkins, we created a program that combated CLABSI in intensive care units through a multi-pronged approach—implementing a simple checklist of evidence-based measures while changing culture and caregivers’ attitudes through an approach called the Comprehensive Unit-based Safety Program (CUSP). The success was replicated on a larger scale across 103 Michigan ICUs and then later across most U.S. states, withimpressive results.
These and similar successes have changed caregivers’ beliefs about what is possible, and inspired more efforts to reach zero infections.
What will it take to attain this goal—or at least get much closer?
Ignaz Semmelweiss was laughed out of his Viennese hospital when he suggested that physicians should wash their hands in between conducting an autopsy and delivering a baby.
150 years later, we know just how right he was, but hand sanitation compliance rates at hospitals still hover in the 30% to 50% range. This makes it easy for hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) such as MRSA and VRE to run rampant, a (literally) dirty, not-so-little, and not-so-secret reality for American patients.
A Healthbox-backed startup is trying to change that. SwipeSense, founded in 2012 by Northwestern University graduates Mert Iseri and Yuri Malina, is a system designed to improve sanitation practices in hospitals using portable hand sanitizers and wirelessly-collected data on their use.
The organization wants to help stem the tide of avoidable HAIs. Each year, about 100,000 Americans die from infections they contract during their time in the hospital – more than the number of Americans killed by guns, motor vehicles, and leukemiacombined. In addition to the direct human toll, HAIs cause patient length of stays to increase by 8.0 days in ICUs and 7.4 to 9.4days in acute care wards, taking up expensive capacity and preventing others from accessing needed hospital beds. They’re also expensive, causing an estimated $4.5 to $5.7 billion in excess costs.
Iseri and Malina were inspired to create SwipeSense by a project they did for Design for America, a student group created to catalyze social change using human-centered design (also founded by Iseri and Malina). It took them to Northwestern Memorial University Hospital in their college town of Evanston, Illinois, where they identified two salient issues with hand sanitation: convenience and compliance.
“It’s obvious it’s not the fault of the nurse or physician…it’s something wrong with the system,” Malina told me in an interview. Even though alcohol foam and soap dispensers are ubiquitous in American hospitals, they often aren’t at the immediate point of care: “medical staff need to sanitize four or five times per patient encounter,” Malina said, making proper sanitation an arduous, time-consuming, and unrealistic task. “Our philosophy at SwipeSense is that the right thing to do should be the easiest thing to do… We want to make something that people love.”
There’s a high-profile and important paper in JAMA this week by Sunil Eappen and colleagues. The study looked at surgical discharges during 2010 from a single 12-hospital system and came to the conclusion that admissions that include a surgical complication were associated with a higher profit (defined as the contribution margin) than admissions without complications. The authors conclude that this creates a disincentive for hospitals preventing surgical complications since they might see reduced profits as a result. This is a very provocative finding and it’s getting a lot of well-placed media attention, as you might expect. There is an important caveat with the study that I would like to highlight.
In the study, the authors report that admissions with surgical complications result in $39,000 higher “profits” if the care is reimbursed via a private payer and $1800 if Medicare is the payer. However, as Dr. Reinhardt correctly noted in the editorial,
“Allocating profit and loss is exquisitely sensitive to the many assumptions made in economic modeling and must be performed carefully to provide useful evidence about the financial ramifications of surgical complications and other services.“
His concern dealt mostly with how the authors allocated fixed costs in their calculations. My concern has to do with what the authors assumed happens to an empty bed once a patient is discharged in a US hospital.