Study: Hospital Infections Kill 48,000 in U.S. Each Year

"Hospitals may not have adequate incentives to really address this problem, because infection control costs money but stopping infections doesn't necessarily save them money," he said, explaining that insurers and others have to pay for the re-hospitalization from an infection.

At the same time, he said, hospitals have many other priorities when it comes to patient care, and may not undertake necessary infection measures.

"I recognize that they have other, competing priorities," said Laxminarayan, explaining that the data in his study indicate hospital infections are not a new problem

"There's not a sharp increasing trend," he said. "We've been living with this problem for years, it's just not been properly quantified."

Reversing the Trend

Infections from hospital stays themselves have drawn increased scrutiny in recent years, as well as measures designed to curb their occurrence.

Last year, Medicare stopped paying for re-hospitalization for patients who were infected during a previous hospital stay.

But Laxminarayan said such measures were not enough to make a difference.

"The problem with that is that in trying to draw the boundary very carefully [between infections the hospital could prevent and infections beyond its control] the number of hospitalizations or deaths that were influenced by that rule is very small. So that didn't really change the incentives," he said.

Instead, he proposed, hospitals should receive money to begin programs of infection prevention, with enough given to make up for any losses incurred by infections that may be beyond the control of staff.

While that measure sounds compelling, it isn't necessary for the first steps of infection control, said Pamela Brier, CEO of Maimonides Medical Center in New York.

"I wouldn't turn down money. Hospitals can always use money," she said. But for steps like encouraging hand-washing among staff, "You really don't need money for that."

At Maimonides, staffers began wearing badges reading "Please Ask Me If I Cleaned My Hands" to encourage patients to do just that. Brier said they have proven very popular.

But ultimately, she said, hospital infections need to be publicized, as they are in New York State, so patients know about them and can use it to compare hospitals.

Santa agreed, explaining that it is something the Consumers Union has pushed for nationwide.

"We feel, first of all, that it's time hospital-acquired infections were reported to the public so that we all had a much better sense of what's going on here," he said.

Brier explained that having those number public in New York means a healthy competition between the hospitals for better patient care.

"We're very competitive; we want to make sure we measure up," she said. "We don't want to see something another hospital is doing and we know we could."

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