Nov. 14, 2006 -- A hospital visit may be more dangerous to your health than you realize. Just ask Ingrid Kwiatek, who came home from the hospital with a serious staph infection.
Kwiatek's husband said what started as a routine hospital visit turned into an 110-day nightmare of pain and suffering in three different Pennsylvania hospitals.
"I would never wish this experience on anyone," he said. "Especially distressing was the closed-ranks attitude at all three hospitals in discussing the infection."
Following the incident, Kwiatek's family doctor had this to say: "Hospitals are dirty places."
The High Cost of Infections
A new report released by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council pointed to the high cost of these infections in both dollars and lives.
The report -- the first of its kind in the nation -- identified the actual number of infections reported by Pennsylvania's 168 hospitals, as well as other related quality-of-care measures, in 2005.
The hospitals studied reported 19,154 cases in which patients contracted hospital-acquired infections. The hospitalizations resulting from these infections amounted to 394,129 hospital days and $3.5 billion in hospital charges.
The average hospital charge for patients with a hospital-acquired infection was $185,260, while the average charge for patients without hospital-acquired infections was $31,389. The average length of stay for patients with hospital-acquired infections was also longer at 20.6 days, compared with 4.5 days, for those who didn't contract hospital infections.
Most telling, though, were the figures on patient deaths. The report said that while 2.3 percent of patients who didn't acquire infections died, the mortality rate for those who did contract infections was 12.9 percent -- more than 5½ times as high.
"This report is a first. We are no longer looking at statistics based on estimates or extrapolated data," said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's Stop Hospital Infections campaign. "These are real people who suffered from real infections. The personal and financial costs of hospital infections are staggering."
The Pennsylvania study did offer a few solutions. It said that doctors and other hospital workers should wash their hands more regularly, use gloves and properly sterilized equipment, and routinely follow established "best practices." The report also suggested that patients should follow the same guidelines and insist that not only health care providers but visitors wash their hands too.
Shedding Light on Hospital Safety
What adds to the problem, though, according to health officials, is that most states are not required to report infections or provide such information to the public.
"It's time to shine the light on this important and costly issue," said Marc Volavka, executive director of Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council. "This will save thousands of Americans from the devastating effects of hospital-acquired infections."
Volavka said the report is a first step toward greater transparency.
"It's time that hospitals, patients and those who pay the bill know how many patients develop hospital-acquired infections, the type of infections they develop and the quality and cost implications," Volavka said. "The more information that becomes available, the better the focus will be on preventing these infections."
"Until now, consumers have been completely in the dark about their hospital's record on infecting patients," said Beth McConnell, director of the Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group Education Fund. "This report sheds light on a very serious problem and will help the public hold hospitals accountable for patient safety."