WASHINGTON, D.C. — Catching a life-threatening illness while lying in crispy-clean linens is one of the last things most people expect from a hospital stay.
But one in 25 patients have at least one hospital-associated infection, according to a survey of 183 hospitals released Wednesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New England Journal of Medicine.
Researchers looked at 648,000 patients from 2011 in their survey. Of the more 720,000 cases they found of hospital-borne infections, 75,000 resulted in death. In a conference call with reporters, federal health officials warned that catching an infection is as easy as doctors forgetting to wash their hands.
“Although there has been some progress, today and every day, more than 200 Americans with health care-associated infections will die during their hospital stay,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden in a statement.
Nationally, numbers for hospital-borne infections from 2011-2012 have decreased across the board, according to a second CDC report surveying nearly 13,000 hospitals, also released Wednesday. With the exception of catheter-associated urinary tract infections, all other infection numbers were down, but not by much.
MRSA infections — methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus — declined 4 percent, while numbers for the most common in-hospital infection, clostridium difficile — known as c. diff and encompassing 12.1 percent — went down only 2 percent. The biggest success was a 44 percent decrease in central-line associated bloodstream infections, which occur when bacteria enter the bloodstream through a central-line catheter, a long tube attached to a vein that reaches a larger vein near the heart.
Generally, the sickest of patients are the most susceptible to infection, but “all patients that enter the hospital are at risk,” according to CDC epidemiologist Scott Fridkin.
Patients are vulnerable to germs entering the body while undergoing invasive medical care, during and after procedures.
Antibiotics are prescribed to nearly half of the patients in hospitals, according to the CDC. Bacteria can become immune to this treatment, producing “superbug” mutations that can cause infections in patients or spread to others. Fridkin urged how critical it was for medical providers to take care when prescribing antibiotics.
CDC deputy director Michael Bell likened prescribing new antibiotics to “ordering a new credit card when you are bankrupt.” The CDC proposes caregivers limit the number of antibiotics given to patients to prevent the problem.
But in an interview, Dr. Betsy McCaughey, chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, an advocacy group for higher sanitary standards in hospitals, said, “What’s needed is more effective cleaning of hospitals. The fact is most of these infections are caused by poor hygiene in hospitals. The CDC is doing much too little to encourage hospitals to clean effectively.”
CDC officials called for patients and doctors to reassess their conduct in the hospital room and recommended that patients ask more questions of their caregivers regarding cleanliness, such as, “Did you wash your hands before coming to my room?”
Doctors, meanwhile, are urged to consider whether invasive devices, such as catheters, are always needed.
In his recent budget, President Barack Obama asked for $30 million for the CDC’s Antibiotics Resistance Initiative, which the agency hopes will save more 20,000 lives and more than $2 billion in health care costs.