Gut Reaction


Listen to Dr. Gould

Colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM) of dividing C. diff bacterial cells (yellow). Old dead bacterial cells are pink.

At 480-bed Emory University Hospital Midtown in Atlanta, the physicians and staff seemingly are doing all the right things to foil one of hospital’s archenemies: Clostridium difficile. The bacteria, better known as C. diff, is responsible for a sharp rise in hospital-acquired infections over the past decade, rivaling even MRSA.

In 2010, Emory Midtown launched a campaign to boost awareness of the importance of hand washing before and after treating patients infected with C. diff and those likely to be infected. They also began using the polymerase-chain-reaction-based assay to detect the bacteria, a test with much higher sensitivity that helps to more efficiently identify those infected so control measures can be more prompt and targeted. They use a hypochlorite mixture to clean the rooms of those infected, which is considered a must. And a committee monitors the use of antibiotics to prevent overuse—often the scapegoat for the rise of the hard-to-kill bacteria.

Still, at Emory, the rate of C. diff is about the same as the national average, says hospitalist Ketino Kobaidze, MD, assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine and a member of the antimicrobial stewardship and infectious disease control committees at Midtown. While Dr. Kobaidze says her institution is doing a good job of trying to keep C. diff under control, she thinks hospitalists can do more.

“My feeling is that we are not as involved as we’re supposed to be,” she says. “I think we need to be a little bit more proactive, be involved in committees and research activities across the hospital.”

Clostridium difficile is going to be much harder to control than MRSA or other bacteria because it changes into a hard-to-kill dormant spore stage and then re-occurs at some point.

—Kevin Kavanagh, MD, founder, Health Watch USA

You Are Not Alone

The experience at Emory Midtown is far from unusual—healthcare facilities, and hospitalists, across the country have seen healthcare-related C. diff cases more than double since 2001 to between 400,000 and 500,000 a year, says Carolyn Gould, MD, a medical epidemiologist in the division of healthcare quality promotion at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta.

Hospitalists, whether they realize it or not, are intimately involved in how well the C. diff outbreak is controlled. Infectious-disease (ID) specialists say hospitalists are perfectly situated to make an impact in efforts to help curb the outbreak.

“Hospitalists are critical to this effort,” Dr. Gould says. “They’re in the hospital day in and day out, and they’re constantly interacting with the patients, staff, and administration. They’re often the first on the scene to see a patient who might have suddenly developed diarrhea; they’re the first to react. I think they’re in a prime position to play a leadership role to prevent C. diff infections.”

Listen to Dr. Gould

They’re also situated well to work with infection-control experts on antimicrobial stewardship programs, she says.

“I look at hospitalists just like I would have looked at internists managing their own patients 15 years ago,” says Stuart Cohen, MD, an ID expert with the University of California at Davis and a fellow with the Infectious Diseases Society of America who was lead author of the latest published IDSA guidelines on C. diff treatment. “And so they’re the first-line people.”

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Mayo Shows How a Simple Step Can Make Big Difference in C. Diff

Mayo Shows How a Simple Step Can Make Big Difference in C. Diff Listen to Dr. Gould

Sometimes even when it comes to a huge problem like widespread bacterial infections, simplicity is best.

The Mayo Clinic, in a project to cut the rate of C. diff infections, asked its workers to do one extra thing: Wipe down high-touch areas with bleach wipes. The effort worked; infections were all but eradicated in units that had been having five to seven infections per month.

The results of the project, recently published in Infectious Control and Hospital Epidemiology, show the importance of simple steps as long as they’re carried out regularly and thoroughly.1

The project began when Robert Orenstein, DO, associate professor of medicine in infectious diseases who then worked in Rochester, Minn., established a surveillance network for C. diff infections at Mayo Clinic at the time when such infections were being noted more widely throughout the U.S. and Canada. The network began tracking the cases and found that one inpatient medical unit primarily composed of patients with gastrointestinal diseases had a C. diff rate 10 times higher than the rest of the hospital. Surveillance also showed that universally gloved hematology and oncology units had substantially lower rates of C. diff infection despite high-risk patients.

Dr. Orenstein knew he had to make a change in the GI unit, but it wasn’t feasible to institute universal gloving, so he turned to bleach wipes.

Dr. Orenstein

Twice a day, housekeeping staff wiped down all “high-touch” areas (light switches, toilet handles, bed rails) in all of the rooms. The wipes contain 0.55% sodium hypochlorite. Within six months, the number of C. diff cases fell to almost zero.

“We were just in shock,” Dr. Orenstein says. He attributed the improvement to a reduction in the “colonization pressure”—if a high concentration of patients with C. diff can cause abundant transmissions quickly, the opposite is also true.

The greatly improved figures were shared with housekeeping, which initially complained about the smell but were encouraged to keep doors open and rooms ventilated. The bleach wipes, which Dr. Orenstein acknowledges mean an additional expense, leave a white residue when dry, so the surfaces are wiped down with water after the recommended contact time.

Dr. Orenstein notes that the results came even without a change in hand hygiene, which he had deemed not feasible because of the hospital’s lack of sinks. He isn’t diminishing the importance of hand washing, but the project does show how effective a single step can be.

The key, Dr. Orenstein adds, might be that it was just one change involving just one group of staff. “Why we think it was so effective is it was really one group that had to change their behavior and we worked with them, educated them,” he says.

He emphasizes that the wipes don’t come at the expense of other measures, like thorough cleaning of all rooms and antibiotic stewardship programs.

“You do all of those and do them well,” he says, “then you get the reduction of C. diff in the hospital.”

A Tough Bug

Believed to be aided largely by the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics that knock out the colon’s natural flora, C. diff in the hospital—as well as nursing homes and acute-care facilities—has raged for much of the past decade. Its rise is tied to the emergence of a new hypervirulent strain known as BI/NAP1/027, or NAP1 for short. The strain is highly resistant to fluoroquinolones, such as ciprofloxacin and levofloxacin, which are used often in healthcare settings.

Listen to Dr. Kobaidze

“A fluoroquinolone will wipe out a lot of your normal flora in your gut,” Dr. Gould says. “But it won’t wipe out C. diff, in particular this hypervirulent strain. And so this strain can flourish in the presence of fluoroquinolones.” The strain produces up to 15 to 20 times more toxins than other C. diff strains, according to some data, she adds.

Vancomycin (Vanconin) and metronidazole (Flagyl) are the most common antibiotics used to treat patients infected with C. diff. Mortality rates are higher among the elderly, largely because of their weaker immune system, Dr. Gould says. Studies have generally shown mortality rates of 10% or a bit lower.1

More recent studies have shown that the number of hospital-related C. diff cases might have begun to level off in 2008 and 2009. Dr. Gould says she thinks the leveling off is for real, but there is debate over what the immediate future holds.

“There’s a lot of work and initiatives, especially state-based initiatives, that are being done in hospitals. And there’s reason to believe they’re effective,” she says, adding it’s harder to get a good picture of the problem in long-term care facilities and in the community.

Dr. Cohen with the IDSA says it’s too soon to say whether the problem is hitting a plateau. “CDC data are always a couple of years behind,” he says. “Until you see another data point, you can’t tell whether that’s just a transient flattening and whether it’s going to keep going up or not.”

Kevin Kavanagh, MD, founder of the patient advocacy group Health Watch USA and a retired otolaryngologist in Kentucky who has taken a keen interest in the C. diff problem, says he doesn’t think the end of the tunnel is within view yet.

“I think C. diff is going to get worse before it gets better,” Dr. Kavanagh says. “And that’s not necessarily because the healthcare profession isn’t doing due diligence. This is a tough organism.—it can be tough to treat and can be very tough to kill.”

The Best Defense?

Because C. diff lives within protective spores, sound hand hygiene practices and room-cleaning practices are essential for keeping infections to a minimum. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, effective against other organisms including MRSA, do not kill C. diff. The bacteria must be mechanically removed through hand washing.

And even hand washing might not be totally effective at getting rid of the spores, which means it’s important for healthcare workers to gown and glove in high-risk rooms.

Sodium hypochlorite solutions, or bleach mixtures, have to be used to clean rooms occupied by patients with C. diff, and the prevailing thought is to clean the rooms of patients suspected of having C. diff, even if those cases might not be confirmed.

Equally important to cleaning and hand washing is systemwide emphasis on antibiotic stewardship. A 2011 study at the State University of New York Buffalo found that the risk of a C. diff infection rose with the number of antibiotics taken.2

If someone is very sick and you’re not sure what is going on, it’s very reasonable to treat them empirically with broad-spectrum antibiotics. The important thing is that you send the appropriate cultures before so that you know what you’re treating and you can optimize those antibiotics with daily assessments.

—Carolyn Gould, MD, medical epidemiologist, division of healthcare quality promotion, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta

While a broad-spectrum antibiotic might be necessary at first, once the results of cultures are received, the treatment should be finely tailored to kill only the problem bacteria so that the body’s natural defenses aren’t broken down, Dr. Gould explains.

“If someone is very sick and you’re not sure what is going on, it’s very reasonable to treat them empirically with broad-spectrum antibiotics,” she says. “The important thing is that you send the appropriate cultures before so that you know what you’re treating and you can optimize those antibiotics with daily assessments.”

Dr. Cohen

It’s clear why an overreliance on broad-spectrum drugs prevails in U.S. health settings, Dr. Cohen acknowledges. Recent literature suggests treating critically ill patients with wide-ranging antimicrobials as the mortality rate can be twice as high with narrower options. “I think people have gotten very quick to give broad-spectrum therapy,” he says.

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Knocking Out Clostridium Difficile

Knocking Out Clostridium Difficile Listen to Dr. Gould

Here are the guidelines on treatment of C. diff infections (CDI) as recommended by the Infectious Diseases Society of America:

First steps:

  • Discontinue therapy with the inciting antimicrobial agent(s) as soon as possible as this may influence the risk of CDI recurrence.
  • When severe or complicated CDI is suspected, initiate empirical treatment as soon as the diagnosis is suspected.
  • If the stool toxin assay result is negative, the decision to initiate, stop, or continue treatment must be individualized.
  • If possible, avoid use of antiperistaltic agents as they may obscure symptoms and precipitate toxic megacolon.

Treatment of initial episode:

  • Metronidazole is the drug of choice for the initial episode of mild to moderate CDI. The dosage is 500 mg orally three times per day for 10 to 14 days.
  • Vancomycin is the drug of choice for an initial episode of severe CDI. The dosage is 125 mg orally four times per day for 10 to 14 days.
  • Vancomycin administered orally (and per rectum if ileus is present) with or without intravenously administered metronidazole is the regimen of choice for the treatment of severe complicated CDI. The vancomycin dosage is 500 mg orally four times per day and 500 mg in approximately 100 mL normal saline per rectum every six hours as a retention enema, and the metronidazole dosage is 500 mg intravenously every eight hours.

Severely ill patients:

Consider colectomy for severely ill patients. Monitoring the serum lactate level and the peripheral blood white blood cell count may be helpful in prompting a decision to operate because a serum lactate level rising to 5 mmol/L and a white blood cell count rising to 50,000 cells per mL have been associated with greatly increased perioperative mortality. If surgical management is necessary, perform subtotal colectomy with preservation of the rectum.

Treatment of recurrences:

  • Treatment of the first recurrence of CDI is usually with the same regimen as for the initial episode but should be stratified by disease severity (mild-to-moderate, severe, or severe complicated) as is recommended for treatment of the initial CDI episode.
  • Do not use metronidazole beyond the first recurrence of CDI or for long-term chronic therapy because of potential for cumulative neurotoxicity.
  • Treatment of the second or later recurrence of CDI with vancomycin therapy using a tapered and/or pulse regimen is the preferred next strategy.


Administration of currently available probiotics is not recommended to prevent primary CDI as there are limited data to support this approach and there is a potential risk of bloodstream infection.

Source: Cohen SH, Gerding DH, Johnson S, et al. Clinical practice guidelines for Clostridium difficile infection in adults: 2010 update by the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America (SHEA) and the Infectious Diseases Society of America (IDSA). Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology. 2010;31(5):431–455.

National Response, Localized Attention

Dr. Kavanagh of Health Watch USA says that more information about C. diff is needed, particularly publicly available numbers of infections at hospitals. Some states require those figures to be reported, but most don’t. And there is no current federal mandate on reporting of C. diff cases, although acute-care hospitals will be required to report C. diff infection rates starting in 2013.

“We really have scant data,” he says. “There is not a lot of reporting if you look at the nation on a whole. And I think that underscores one of the reasons why you need to have data for action. You need to have reporting of these organisms to the National Healthcare Safety Network so that the CDC can monitor and can make plans and can do effective interventions.

“You want to know where the areas of highest infection are,” he adds. “You want to know what interventions work and don’t work. If you don’t have a national coordinated reporting system, it really makes it difficult to address the problem. C. diff is going to be much harder to control than MRSA or other bacteria because it changes into a hard-to-kill dormant spore stage and then re-occurs at some point.”

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has proposed adding C. diff infections to the list of hospital-acquired conditions that will not be reimbursable. It is widely hoped that such a measure will go a long way toward stamping out the problem.

Dr. Kobaidze of Emory notes that C. diff is a dynamic problem, always adapting and posing new challenges. And hospitalists should be more involved in answering these questions through research. One recent question, she points out, is whether proton pump inhibitor use is related to the rise of C. diff.

Ultimately, though, controlling C. diff in hospitals might come down to what is done day to day inside the hospital. And hospitalists can play a big role.

Danielle Scheurer, MD, MSCR, SFHM, a hospitalist and medical director of quality at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, says that a full-time pharmacist on the hospital’s antimicrobial stewardship committee is always reviewing antibiotic prescriptions and is prepared to flag cases in which a broad-spectrum is used when one with a more narrow scope might be more appropriate.

The hospital has done its best, as part of its “renovation cycle,” to standardize the layouts of rooms “so that the second you open the door you know exactly where the alcohol gel is and where the soap and the sink is going to be.” The idea is to make compliance as “mindless” as possible. Such efforts can be hampered by structural limitations though, she says.

HM group leaders, she suggests, can play an important part simply by being good role models—gowning and gloving without complaint before entering high-risk rooms and reinforcing the message that such efforts have real effects on patient safety.

But she also acknowledges that “it always sounds easy....There has to be some level of redundancy built into the hospital system. This is more of a system thing than the individual hospitalist.”

One level of redundancy at MUSC that has been particularly effective, she says, are “secret shoppers” who keep an eye out for medical teams that might not be washing their hands as they go in and out of high-risk rooms. Each unit is responsible for their hand hygiene numbers—which include both self-reported figures and those obtained by the secret onlookers—and those numbers are made available to the hospital.

Those units with the best numbers are sometimes given a reward, such as a pizza party, but it’s colleagues’ knowledge of the numbers that matters most, she says.

“That, in and of itself, is a powerful motivator,” Dr. Scheurer says. “We bring it to all of our quality operations meetings, all the administrators, the CEO, the CMO. It’s very motivating for every unit. They don’t want to be the trailing unit.”

Tom Collins is a freelance medical writer based in Miami.


  1. Orenstein R, Aronhalt KC, McManus JE Jr., Fedraw LA. A targeted strategy to wipe out Clostridium difficile. Infect Control Hosp Epidemiol. 2011;32(11):1137-1139.
  2. Stevens V, Dumyati G, Fine LS, Fisher SG, van Wijngaarden E. Cumulative antibiotic exposures over time and the risk of Clostridium difficile infection. Clin Infect Dis. 2011;53(1):42-48.

What Hospitalists Can Do

What Hospitalists Can Do Listen to Dr. Gould

Here are suggestions, as provided by ID experts and hospitalist leaders, on what hospitalists can do to battle C. diff infections:

Short-term steps:

  • Wash hands before entering and upon leaving rooms occupied by patients with C. diff infections and those strongly suspected of having C. diff infections.
  • Continue using alcohol-based hand sanitizers in addition to hand washing to prevent other types of outbreaks.
  • Ensure that infected patients, and those suspected of being infected, are isolated, possibly even for 48 hours after diarrhea resolves, as research shows the patients can still transmit the spores.
  • In units with high C. diff rates, consider universal gloving, not just for patients with known infection.
  • Use more highly sensitive tests, such as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, rather than enzyme immunoassays to more efficiently identify affected patients.
  • Avoid testing patients with formed stools.
  • Ensure that rooms of infected patients and patients strongly suspected of being infected are cleaned with a hypochlorite solution.
  • Taper the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics in non-C. diff patients after test results are obtained.
  • Encourage patients to question their healthcare practitioners about hand hygiene and use of antibiotics.

Long-term steps:

  • Be involved with your hospital’s antimicrobial stewardship program.
  • Conduct research into C. diff to explore its causes and treatments.
  • Be a good role model for the rest of your group, emphasizing good practices and a strong patient-safety message.

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