No one wants to become infected during their hospital stay. Unfortunately it’s not possible to guarantee that it won’t happen. Bacteria are everywhere. We carry them on our skin, in our bodies (especially our digestive tract), and they live in food, clothing, and anything we touch. When we undergo surgery, we cut through the skin/blood barrier that keep the bacteria out, making us vulnerable to inadvertent invasion.
There are ways to reduce the risk of infection (sterile surgical technique, appropriate wound care, and personal hygiene) but the risk is not zero. For the risk to be zero, one would have to begin with a “sterile” patient – a patient who carries no bacteria on or in their body. Since that will never happen, I’m afraid that hospital acquired infections are here to stay.
However, with government-sponsored health insurance programs on the brink of bankruptcy, decreasing expenditures is a high priority. Therefore, Medicare is suggesting that there are certain events that should never happen in the hospital and that they will no longer compensate hospitals for care associated with these events. Although I certainly agree that operating on the wrong body part is appropriately classified as a “never event,” the list has become so long that it includes things that cannot possibly be prevented in all cases (things like catching a cold, developing a blood clot, falling, or becoming infected).
What will result from listing infections as a “never event?” Will it encourage hospitals to improve their infection control processes? Maybe. But here’s what I imagine is more likely to happen:
1. More prophylactic antibiotics will be given to patients to reduce the risk of infection, resulting in higher rates of serious drug reactions. Stronger medicine (with broader coverage) will be preferentially selected – further encouraging the development of drug resistant strains of bacteria.
2. Patients who become infected will be transferred to another facility as quickly as possible. The accepting facility will be compensated for the care of the patient since the “never event” didn’t happen at their hospital. Transferring care in the middle of a serious illness increases the risk for other complications, including miscommunications and medication errors.
3. Since Medicare has set the expectation that hospital acquired infections are 100% preventable, anyone who contracts one will be able to sue the hospital. This will deplete the hospitals of their thin operating margins, causing them to cut programs – probably first for the poor and underserved.
4. Additional testing may be done for any surgical admission – nasal swabs (and potentially rectal swabs or urethral swabs) will be used to document the fact that the patient arrived at the hospital colonized by certain bacteria and therefore did not contract a new infection during their hospital stay.
5. Convoluted documentation methods will abound, so that any patient who becomes infected will receive antibiotics for “prophylaxis” and his fevers will be explained as the usual “post-op” central fevers. All staff will be encouraged to carefully document that the patient is being treated prophylactically only, and does not have an infection. In fact, it’s possible that blood cultures will not be drawn so that there will be no documentation of sepsis. Patients who really do have serious infections will receive appropriate care very late (since the first few days will be spent trying to manage the infection without documenting it or identifying the organism). This could paradoxically result in higher death rates.
6. Patients at higher risk for infection (such as those who are immunocompromised – see my research study on risk factors for line infections here) may be passed over for surgical procedures. This risk aversion could negatively impact health outcomes for vulnerable populations (such as cancer patients or HIV+ individuals).
I could go on theorizing, but you get the picture. In my opinion, the “never events” strategy is fatally flawed and will result in excessive litigation, ping-ponging of patient care, over-use of antibiotics, increases in adverse drug events, a rise in multi-drug resistant bacteria, and further reduction of services to the poor. A more reasonable approach would have been to document infection rates at the most hygienic facilities, and offer incentives for others to strive for similar rates.
The “never events” strategy is destined to do more harm than good for patients with hospital acquired infections, though the medical malpractice attorneys may enjoy a new income stream. This is just one more reason why we should never say never.
See Buckeye Surgeon’s take on this topic and his coverage of Jerome Groopman’s article for the New Yorker on the rise of drug resistant “super bugs.”