Overall Cost-cutting Efforts Lead to Increased Infection Rate

Excerpted from an article in Townsend Letter for Doctors and Patients 2002 by Jule Klotter

Using data collected from 315 hospitals, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 90,000 deaths in 2000, were caused by infections acquired at a hospital.

According to the CDC, about 2,000,000 of the 35 million annual hospital admissions will acquire an infection during their stay. The Chicago Tribune places the estimate for hospital-infection deaths at 103,000 and says that about 75,000 were preventable, "the result of unsanitary facilities, germ-laden instruments and unwashed hands." They derived their figures by analyzing records from 75 federal and state agencies, patient databases, internal hospital files, and court cases that were tied to 5,810 hospitals.

According to Michael J. Berens of the Chicago Tribune, hospital cleaning and janitorial staffs have been cut across the nation by 25% in order to save money, since 1995. Understaffing and inadequate training mean that germ-contaminated bedrails, telephones, and other fixtures often do not get cleaned. When serious sanitary problems arise, administrators, who are trying to cut costs, can be slow to react. Berens cites an operating room at a Connecticut medical center, known to have a faulty air ventilation system; administrators refused to spend $20,000 to replace it in 1995. Instead, they continued to use the room with its dusty air and flies for surgery. Court records report that "up to one in five patients" operated on in that room during 1997 ended up with an infection. The costs in human suffering, further medical costs to treat infection, not to mention litigation, make such 'cost-cutting measures' extremely short-sighted.

Health-care workers who forget or claim a lack of time to wash their hands between patients are another major contributor to the spread of hospital infections. According to Mr. Berens, "in a Detroit hospital, as doctors and nurses moved about the pediatric intensive care unit without washing hands, infections killed four babies in the same row of bassinets, according to court records and interviews." When health-care workers become careless about washing their hands and some of their colleagues come to work sick, a full-blown epidemic can occur.