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Strong action by hospitals stems the spread of staph

In a pilot program, nine California facilities flagged infections quickly enough to prevent hundreds more.

January 01, 2008|Mary Engel | Times Staff Writer

As the public's alarm mounts over methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, and other antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a few hospitals in California and across the country are finding that aggressive action to detect and avert infections pays off.

During a recently concluded 18-month pilot project, nine California hospitals were able to prevent an estimated 600 healthcare-associated infections by using a data-mining program to comb through computerized records, flagging infections quickly enough to thwart their spread.

The hospitals avoided $9 million in treatment costs, said Deborah Schwab, director of health and technology for the Blue Shield of California Foundation, the healthcare philanthropy that sponsored the million-dollar experiment.

Infections acquired at California hospitals, nursing homes and similar institutions cost $3.1 billion annually to treat, according to a state estimate. Federal officials estimate that each year, 1.7 million people -- nearly 1 in 20 patients nationwide -- acquire infections during their hospital stays, and 99,000 die.

"If you asked most hospitals if they had a problem, they'd probably say no," said Schwab, a former nurse. "When I entered healthcare in the 1970s, everyone assumed that hospital-acquired infections were just tough luck."

The hospitals' willingness to even take part in the project is a sign that attitudes are finally changing, she said.

Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo, one of the participating hospitals, uncovered a pattern of urinary tract infections, many of them traced to the use of urinary catheters, said Debbie Mulligan, the hospital's infection prevention manager. By limiting the amount of time a patient used a catheter and substituting high-quality diapers, the hospital has been able to reduce its infection rate by 20%, Mulligan said.

"Now each unit wants to see what their numbers are," Mulligan said. "That's huge."

Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Union's Stop Hospital Infections campaign, called data-mining programs "the wave of the future" but said they were no substitute for the public reporting that her nonprofit group supports.

"There's a tendency to say this will solve all our problems, but the public is still going to want to know what the results are," she said. "People have the right to know how many people are infected in the hospital."

mary.engel@latimes.com

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