The Chart

The gruesome math of hospital infections

A column in yesterday’s New York Times by Maureen Dowd about how her brother died after acquiring infections in the hospital certainly struck a nerve – it was No. 1 on the paper’s website for much of the day.

No wonder, considering the number of people who die of infections as her brother did.

“The simplest way to say this is that about 100,000 people die each year from infections we give them in the hospital,” says Dr. Peter Pronovost, director of the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins  University. “That’s enormous.”The math, he says, is pretty gruesome. Take the two most deadly types of infections hospitals give their patients: infections from ventilators and infections from catheters. Together, those kill 65,000 people a year. There are about 5,000 hospitals in the United  States, so statistically, each hospital in the United States gives these deadly infections to one patient every month.

In her column, Dowd described how her brother went into the hospital with pneumonia and quickly contracted four other infections in the intensive care unit. When she asked a doctor why this was happening, he told her, “It could be anything.’”

This is exactly the kind of attitude that’s killing patients, Pronovost says.

“What really struck me most in Maureen’s column was the physician’s lack of accountability,” he explains. “He didn’t see this as his problem. It was like, ‘Well, this stuff happens.’”

Pronovost says the doctor viewed hospital-acquired infections as being in the “inevitable bucket” when really they’re in the “preventable bucket.” He says when hospitals have taken simple steps they’ve managed to reduce pneumonia infections associated with ventilators by 70%.

He says there are two particularly important things families can do when a loved one is in the hospital. One, they should ask everyone who comes in contact with the patient to wash his or her hands. Two, if the patient is on a catheter or a ventilator, they should ask every day if it can come out, since these pieces of equipment are ripe locations for infections.

For more tips on preventing infections at the hospital, see these Empowered Patient tips.