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Hospital Infection Deaths: A New Epidemic

Former New York Lieutenant Governor Betsy McCaughey recently wrote an eye-opening article for The New York Times. Ms. McCaughey is the founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, and in this op-ed piece she takes issue with the Center for Disease Control’s new guidelines for preventing hospital infections.

The guidelines offer suggestions about how to stop the accidental transmittal of H.I.V. and AIDS, which are admittedly both very important issues, but they glaringly leave out universal testing for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, which is better known to most of us as Staph infections.

It would seem to be a common sense proposition: Do you put more effort towards preventing HIV transfers, which would take an active mixing of bodily fluids and would seem to be very difficult to do, or do you put more effort towards preventing staph infections, which can be transferred with something as simple as a blood pressure cuff?

Amazingly, the CDC did not come to this conclusion, even though tests for Staph infections are cheaper and less invasive than testing for HIV and AIDS, and even though Staph infections can kill people much faster than HIV or AIDS.

Staph germs are amazingly resilient; 60 % of the germs are drug resistant. The germs are on stethoscopes, blood pressure cuffs, bed rails, and practically every conceivable surface available in a hospital. They aren’t dangerous until they get inside the body, but considering that you are in a hospital with catheters, intravenous tubes, needles and prescription medicine administered by hand, there is no more opportune place for staph germs to exist.

According to Ms. McCaughey, other hospitals and health care systems have done a near-miraculous job lowering the infection rate. It is somewhat telling that these hospitals are in countries like Denmark, Finland and the Netherlands, where health is not a for-profit business, but something that their respective governments offer to their citizens for free.

Here in America, where our doctors are discouraged from giving too many tests because doing so is bad for profits, the mindset is different. Even though these staph infections end up costing American hospitals billions in treatment, the expenditure of mandatory testing is apparently just too costly. Since many of our HMO’s seem to think only in terms of numbers, perhaps this figure will make them take notice: According to Ms. McCaughey’s article, there are an estimated 100,000 deaths a year due to hospital infections, and many of these deaths are due to easily preventable staph infections.

Since so many hospitals won’t undertake the cost to initiate universal testing, the level of hospital infection deaths will probably stay at that same horrible number. HMO’s should not be surprised to find that this state of affairs will lead to more wrongful deaths, and more medical negligence suits. But rather than take a simple step to fix the problem, the HMO’s and Hospital Chains will simply pay their lobbyists to go and bother Congress, apparently under the rationale that campaign contributions and office space on K Street is cheaper than universal testing. It's much more cost effective to invent a "lawsuit crisis" than to fix the problem.

Even with a new congress in place, you can expect the American Tort Reform Association to continue the clarion call of “frivolous lawsuits” and “litigation explosions.” But we find ourselves having to ask a very simple question.

Is there anything “frivolous” about 100,000 deaths a year?

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