Hospital Infection Rates to be Posted Online

Excerpts from the Eagle Tribune, Andover, New Hampshire
January 16, 2007

New Hampshire hospitals will be required to make information on infections patients get while being treated there available under a new law that takes effect July 1.

The law requires every hospital in the state to report the number and type of hospital-acquired infections to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Officials there will be responsible for collecting and analyzing the information and creating a database that consumers can access from the Internet to compare infection rates by hospital.

Officials hope the regulations will reduce what is a leading cause of death in the United States, while giving consumers more information to help them choose a hospital.

"We believe once (hospitals) see what their infection rates are, they're going to want to do something about it," said Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumers Union's "Stop Hospital Infections" campaign.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 2 million people get infections from hospital stays every year. That's about 10 percent of the total number of hospital patients nationwide. Advocates of the new law think that by reporting the information and publicizing it, hospitals will do more to reduce infections, which kill 90,000 people a year. "Imagine if 90,000 people died from bird flu," said Rep. Howie Lund, R-Derry, one of the bill's sponsors. "The whole world would be on alert. But this is kept so quiet."

There is no federal requirement or standard by which hospitals must report this information, so states are left to set their own. Including New Hampshire, 15 states have laws requiring hospitals to report infection rates. So far, only three states - Florida, Missouri and Pennsylvania - have made the data available to the public.

"This will enable the consumer public to make a better, more informed decision about whose hands they're going to put their life into," said former Keene state Rep. Bob Guida, one of the bill's sponsors.

Currently, New Hampshire's 32 hospitals aren't required to report any information on hospital-acquired infections to the state. But data Guida gathered and analyzed while arguing the bill showed that 400 people die from hospital-acquired infections every year, and about 4,000 people get them.

"More than one person a day dies from hospital-acquired infections in our state right now," Guida said. "Hospitals don't want it known because it reflects a laxity in standards."

But reporting infection rates isn't as simple as it may seem, according to Andrea Alley, director of communications for the New Hampshire Hospital Association, which represents all of the state's hospitals. She said that even though it is now a law, hospitals can't gather the information because there are no standards by which to do so.

"Though we want to be able to provide the information, it's not useful for anybody because you're not comparing apples to apples," Alley said. "Everyone is using different criteria to define an infection. They're using different methods of even keeping track."

She said while hospitals can look at ways to prevent infections, they can't do much about reporting infections until the state tells them how. That means it will be at least a year before consumers have access to this information.

If no guidance on defining infections is provided by the federal government by July 1, the state will put rules in place for reporting infections, Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Greg Moore said.

But it won't be easy. "Everyone would agree that this is good policy," Moore said. "But the devil is in the details." Not only will the state have to get hospitals to agree on standards, they'll have to put people in charge of collecting and analyzing the results, which Moore said could be expensive. Plus, there are downsides to making this information public, he said.

"We don't want to stigmatize a hospital because they tackle the hard cases," Moore said. "We could end up in a situation (where) there's an appearance that what's going on there is resulting in a high rate of infection." But preventing infection in hospitals, advocates of the law argue, is as simple as doctors washing their hands.

"It's about being meticulous about cleanliness," Consumers Union's McGiffert said. "It doesn't cost a lot of money to do these things. And in the long run, it could end up saving the state money. "If there is higher quality, and that quality results in savings, the state will benefit financially," Moore said. "Fewer sick people just cost less."

By Courtney Paquette , Staff Writer