A Winnable Battle

Research shows infection prevention warnings often are ignored. The best defenses: sterile gowns, gloves, hands washed with soap and water, and cleaning with bleach.

Redness, pain, and drainage from the skin around a catheter. Bloody, cloudy, or pungent urine and mental confusion. Severe diarrhea and a dilated colon: The potential symptoms of some of the most common hospital-acquired infections in the United States aren’t particularly pleasant.

The numbers don’t paint a pretty picture, either.

One widely cited study estimates that the nation’s hospitals report 1.7 million healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) every year, along with nearly 100,000 associated deaths.1 All told, the additional healthcare costs could tally $30 billion or more annually, according to a 2009 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) analysis. Though some bright spots have emerged, healthcare advocates, including Kevin Kavanagh, MD, MS, FACS, director of Kentucky-based patient advocacy group Health Watch USA, contend that the overall size of the problem is likely underestimated. And unless brought under control, he says, emerging pathogens could make a bad situation worse.

The incredible variety of healthcare settings precludes any across-the-board solutions for hospitalists and other care providers. A recent survey of more than 1,200 healthcare professionals from 33 hospitals, however, revealed some common themes. According to the study authors, the data show that “hand hygiene is consistently identified as the greatest barrier to reducing HAIs, and that sustaining the necessary behavioral change to overcome this barrier is difficult.”2 In fact, the study highlighted a widespread belief that medical staff, and doctors in particular, are not fully engaged or in compliance with HAI reduction efforts. “The data suggest that physicians often do not adhere to protocols and guidelines; moreover, some respondents questioned whether many physicians are open to change,” the authors wrote.

The study suggested that PICCs were associated with longer catheter use and more idle days, fueling Dr. Chernetsky Tejedor’s group’s suspicion that increased PICC availability has changed CVC use patterns.

So what can hospitalists do to help their colleagues embrace a culture of positive change and turn back a worsening healthcare epidemic? If simple answers are in short supply, studies aimed at central-line-associated bloodstream infections, catheter-associated urinary tract infections, and Clostridium difficile infections have at least highlighted some keys to a successful intervention.

In Focus: Central Lines

Central-line-associated bloodstream infections (CLABSIs) arguably have received the most attention of any HAI. Not coincidentally, most researchers point to the anti-CLABSI effort as the high point in the struggle to reduce infection rates.

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