Death Toll from Hospital-Acquired Infections Higher than AIDS, Guns or Traffic Accidents�Costs Astronomical

Feb 24, 2010, 10:27 AM, Posted by RWJF Blog Team

Since 2006, sepsis and pneumonia, two common conditions caused by largely preventable hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), have killed 48,000 patients and have cost the health care system a staggering $8.1 billion – this according to a new study in Archives of Internal Medicine by researchers at Extending the Cure.

To put this in perspective: the death toll from avoidable pneumonia and sepsis is higher than that from traffic fatalities. It's more than three times higher than that for AIDS, and roughly twice as much as annual deaths from firearms.

The study is the largest nationally representative study to date – Ramanan Laxminarayan, Anup Malani and colleagues analyzed 69 million discharge records from hospitals in 40 states – and the findings are generating a lot of buzz.  Patients who developed sepsis after surgery stayed in the hospital 11 days longer and the infections cost an extra $33,000 to treat per person – what’s worse is nearly 20 percent of those patients died as a result of the infection. While patients who developed pneumonia after surgery stayed in the hospital an extra 14 days, cost an extra $46,000 per person to treat and 11 percent died as a result of the infection.

HAIs frequently are caused by microbes that defy treatment with common antibiotics. Co-author Malani said, “These superbugs are increasingly difficult to treat and, in some cases, trigger infections that ultimately cause the body’s organs to shut down”.

Another interesting implication is that Medicare’s decision to not reimburse hospitals by preventable so-called “never” events is not having much of an impact when it comes to HAIs.  In a case of misaligned incentives, the study suggests that penalties may not be a sufficient deterrent to motivate stronger infection control if hospitals knowingly misclassify infections to avoid penalties.  It also may be that problems documenting the infections prevent adequate enforcement. Even if the Medicare rules were fully effective, though, it wouldn’t matter…according to the NPR blog, “in an analysis that's not in the published paper, the authors looked at how many deaths could be averted each year…The answer: Fewer than 100.”

Check out other coverage from ABC News, the Wall Street Journal Health Blog and NPR’s Marketplace.

If you are interested in seeing what else Extending the Cure is working on, make sure to check out their blog and twitter account. 

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF Pioneering Ideas blog.