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Hospitals will increase infection control efforts when patients demand it

By Staff
(This editorial originally appeared in The Fayetteville Observer.)
Viruses and bacteria thrive in hospitals — on providers’ hands and patients’ bed sheets, in the crevices of medical equipment, and on the broken skin of the ill and infirm, especially those with weakened immune systems.
Almost 1.7 million patients — four out of every 100 — will acquire an infection during a hospital stay this year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And of those, 99,000, or about 270 per day, will die.
But in North Carolina residents cannot look up infection rates or measure which hospitals are doing a better job of stopping their spread because many health systems shroud the information in secrecy. North Carolina isn’t among the 20 states that require hospitals to publicly report at least some information on hospital-acquired conditions like methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus or bedsores.
Earlier this year, in response to widespread concern about the rise of drug-resistant infections like MRSA, the legislature created a commission that is developing guidelines for collecting data on hospital infections.
But the General Assembly has not voted yet to make the information available to the public. The N.C. Hospital Association says it needs time to test the reporting standards to ensure that hospitals collect the same data the same way. Only then will lawmakers consider lifting the veil of secrecy. At this rate, the earliest the information would be available to the public is 2011.
Tracking hospital infections is tricky. Any report that documents infections must account for patients’ medical states. Sick patients with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to germs, and any treatment can trigger dormant bacteria already in their systems.
Hospitals that are more vigilant about tracking infections may have higher rates than hospitals with sloppy practices. And smaller community hospitals will have lower infection rates than trauma centers where more surgeries take place.
The commission needs to create a formula that accounts for all of these differences. But it shouldn’t take four years to get it done.
Hospital-born infections are part of the dark side of health care that patients need to understand as quickly as possible.
The sooner North Carolina can collect data and standardize the information so accurate comparisons can be made, the sooner hospitals will step up their infection control efforts.