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Hospira CEO: Wiping Out Infections in Our Hospitals—Saving Lives and Money

The last thing anyone checking into a hospital should have to worry about is getting sicker while there.

Yet, hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) are the most common complication of hospital care, claiming about 99,000 lives and costing the U.S. healthcare system about $30 billion each year.

In April, Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius released a report to Congress highlighting the prevalence of HAIs and noting the need for “urgent attention” to the problem.

Unfortunately, the need has been urgent for decades. The healthcare industry has tried for years to eliminate such infections, but many HAIs continue to increase – resulting in an estimated 1.7 million incidents annually.

I believe the time and circumstances are finally aligned for progress.

Technology can make a real difference in changing behavior … and preventing infections.

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Image Source | Getty Images

New healthcare reform mandates and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) are focusing on financial incentives and penalties to address the problem.

They classify hospital-acquired infections as “never events”—things that simply should not happen in a hospital—and starting in 2015, hospitals will lose government funding anytime they occur.

Certainly, eliminating HAIs is critical to quality and affordable healthcare, and they are, in fact, wholly preventable. But hospitals need solutions, not just carrots and sticks. Many infection-prevention efforts have shown little success because they involve changing human behavior within the hospital setting. We have, however, seen that better application of evidence-based preventive measures, delivered through newer technologies, can reduce rates of HAIs within an institution.

Clinicians at patients’ bedsides cannot turn the tide alone. The entire healthcare industry must work together to develop, promote and adopt the use of new technologies to help change behavior and propel better infection prevention.

Emerging tools provide promising solutions.

Some emerging technology offers simple solutions to this complex problem. For instance, frequent hand washing is without a doubt the best known method for infection prevention. It is now possible to use technology to determine whether a person entering a hospital room—a clinician or visitor—has washed his or her hands. This technology is currently only a prototype, but its future availability could go a long way toward infection prevention.

Other technology tools are officially in use, but are not yet widely adopted. For example, software surveillance tools, like Hospira's TheraDoc systemand others, use alerts and data to help hospitals quickly identify and isolate infections.

During last year’s H1N1 outbreak, several hospitals found such tools useful because they were able to track patient information to monitor which patients were being admitted with influenza-like symptoms—and manage the situation to curtail further spread of the infection. Hospital systems with multiple facilities could monitor all patients from one central location. The same technology provides an easy means for hospitals to report data to public-health officials and track compliance with initiatives like the Joint Commission National Patient Safety Goals, aimed at reducing adverse events with high-risk medications.

Additionally, medical device vendors are developing antimicrobial devices and tools to help fend off infections at the source of patient contact. For instance, Hospira has developed a device to help limit bacterial colonization and fight against catheter-related bloodstream infections (CRBSI), which the CDC estimates occur at least 250,000 times a year in the United States, with an estimated treatment cost of $45,000 per infection.

Many hospitals now employ infection preventionists whose sole purpose is to help prevent and manage infections and identify emerging tools and processes, but many others don’t. Sharing best practices among hospital systems will be essential to driving industry-wide improvement.

Proof it can work

While the HHS report highlighted the overall lack of progress in preventing HAIs, there have been some successes. Johns Hopkins Hospital, for example, has used electronic infection surveillance to help reduce HAI confirmation time by 50 percent while achieving 98 percent accuracy of infection identification. And in March 2009, the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania announced that a combination of several initiatives, including electronic infection surveillance and checklists to guide care, helped cut central line-associated bloodstream infections by 90 percent over a three-year period. These and similar success stories offer proof that the larger problem can be thwarted.

So, why aren’t all hospitals racing to adopt promising new tools and technology? Cost is one deterrent, but many hospitals also think studies that show success might not apply to their situations. That’s where the role of the broader healthcare industry comes in.

Infection prevention in hospitals affects everyone—from patients, hospital staff and visitors to the thousands of employees from organizations like mine, whose products provide support to caregivers. HAIs add an estimated 7.5 million excess days a year to hospital stays—impacting both cost and quality of care. We can’t afford to wait for financial deterrents to kick in.

Hospitals must embrace existing infection-prevention technology to save lives and money now.

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Chris Begley is chairman and CEO of Hospira, Inc., which is a member of the Coalition for a Competitive Pharmaceutical Market.