Q&A: Hospital Infection Rates Rarely Disclosed Despite Thousands of Deaths

Millions of patients contract an infectious disease while they are being treated in a hospital, but most hospitals do not release detailed data on the problem.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, is spearheading a nationwide campaign to require hospitals to disclose their infection rates.

Charles Bell, the programs director of Consumers Union, recently sat down with "20/20" producer Susan Wagner to talk about the prevalence of hospital infections and how public disclosure of infection rates can lead to safer hospitals.

Susan Wagner: People are often surprised by how prevalent hospital infections are.

Charles Bell: Consumers think of hospitals as places that you go to get medical treatment, to be healed and to get well. They would be surprised to learn how dangerous it is to go to hospitals. In fact, about one out of every 20 patients experiences a hospital-acquired infection each year. That translates into 2 million people – 90,000 people who die each year. That's more than auto accidents and homicides combined.

Wagner: Doesn't the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) monitor hospital infections for us?

Bell: Well, they do track large national trends. But unfortunately, there is no public reporting of specific hospital infection rates for each hospital. We think it would be very much in the interest of consumers to make that information available to the public, so that consumers can compare the track record of different hospitals in their community. And if a hospital has a high rate of infections, they could avoid that hospital, and perhaps choose a different one.

Wagner: Pennsylvania made big headlines this summer as the first state in the nation to report its number of hospital-acquired infections. Your campaign wants more states to follow their lead. What do you think they're doing right?

Bell: Pennsylvania is one of the six states that have adopted measures to create a public report card for how well hospitals are doing and controlling infections. We think this is a tremendously important step forward because the public disclosure of performance information can really drive quality improvement for patient safety. Having that information is a key to giving hospitals the incentive they need to dramatically reduce these [infection] rates.

Wagner: Many hospitals argue that most hospital-acquired infections are simply unavoidable – the unfortunate result of sick people coming into contact with powerful germs. How would publicizing rates change that?

Bell: Studies have shown that hospitals can reduce infection rates by as much as 70 percent through simple techniques, such as improving their hand washing. But in fact, many hospitals are not implementing those practices. One of the things that concerns us is that there's sort of a culture of inaction, or a culture of secrecy, that's grown up about infections. It's almost like the hospitals don't see this as an essential part of giving health care. We're talking about very serious infections that can require weeks, months or years of treatment and rehabilitation – that can result in permanent disability, loss of jobs, if not death.

Wagner: You describe a "culture of secrecy" that surrounds hospital infections. Why don't hospitals want to reveal their rates? Do they even keep track of them?

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