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Simple Hospital Precautions Save Lives and Money

A hospital stay can be deadly. More than 100,000 Americans die each year from infections acquired in the hospital. That's as many deaths as from AIDS, breast cancer and automobile accidents combined. However, rigorous infection prevention methods can save thousands of lives and billions of dollars in unnecessary health care costs.

Two years ago, Maureen Daly's 63-year-old mother was admitted to a New York City hospital with a fractured shoulder. Ms. Daly recalls this disturbing scene at her mother's bedside following surgery. "Two doctors came in and checked on her incision, and they removed her (surgical) dressing," she says. "Neither one of the doctors washed their hands or put on gloves. And, later on in the day when mom was getting out of the bed to dress to go home, we found the disgusting dirty dressing in her bed."

Five months later, her mother was dead. The tragedy opened Ms. Daly's eyes to a major problem: Hospitals breed infections. One in 20 patients contracts an infection during a hospital stay. And rates are soaring for the drug-resistant staph infection that killed Ms. Daly's mother.

But these infections are preventable, according to Betsy McCaughey, who chairs the Committee to Reduce Infection Death, an advocacy group for patient health. Its latest report documents the human and financial burdens of hospital infections.

The report mandates rigorous hand washing and meticulous cleaning of equipment and rooms between patients. And it says patients must be tested for drug resistant bacteria as soon as they're admitted, so that the hospital can take additional measures to prevent its spread. "If a doctor or nurse leans over a bedside of a patient carrying this bacteria on their skin, 65% of the time when they stand up again they have bacteria on their lab coats and on their nurses uniforms and then they go to the next person's bedside and deposit that," says Ms. McCaughey, and adds, "Twenty-four percent of the time it is deposited to the next patient's bedside or it contaminates the hands of the doctors or nurse when they touch their own body."

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus or MRSA - the bacterium that killed Maureen Daly's mother - accounted for just 2% of in-hospital staph infections in 1974. By 2003, that percent had risen to 57%, and it continues to climb.

Betsy McCaughey says institutional precautions save lives and money. The nation is spending $30 billion a year in treating infections that are primarily preventable.

The Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths is calling for state laws that require hospitals to report their infection rates. Six states -- Florida, Illinois, Missouri, Pennsylvania, Virginia and New York -- have such a law in place. Thirty others are considering the legislation.

The hospital industry has lobbied against the idea, saying that it would be unfair to hospitals that treat AIDS, cancer and organ transplant patients who are especially vulnerable to infection. But Betsy McCaughey says the report cards take these health risks into account. "Everybody knows it is the right thing to do," she says. "If you have to go into a hospital you should be able to find out which hospital is safest. After all, most state health departments already tell you if a deli or a restaurant has been cited for health violations. So, they make it easy for you to buy a safe sandwich, it should be just as easy to find a safe hospital."

Maureen Daly agrees, and says it could have made a difference for her mother. "When the public finds out that one hospital has a higher infection rate, we are not going to go to that hospital," she says. "We are going to pick the hospitals that have the lowest infections. I think it is important that hospitals learn that, and I only wish that information had been available to me. I believe that my mother would have been alive today, if it had been available."

Betsy McCaughey with the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths says the report cards will motivate hospitals to improve. As a result, she says, fewer patients will carry life-threatening infections with them when they return home.