Rising Hospital Infections a Growing Problem

Author:  Wang Andrew
Date:  October 2007

Although most people go to hospitals for treatment and relief from illness, many find that their health is at risk from hospital acquired infections. New research published in Clinical Infectious Diseases has shown that infections caused by a common bacterium have increased by over 7 percent every year between 1998 and 2003. In addition, hospital expenditure has increased annually by nearly 12 percent to compensate for these infections.

Staphylococcus aureus (also known as staph) is an extremely common bacterium found on the surface of human skin that can lead to a number of infectious diseases, ranging from minor skin infections to life-threatening illnesses like pneumonia or blood poisoning. In 1998, hospitals were reporting slightly more than 250,000 staph infections but, by 2003, the numbers had gone up to nearly 390,000 infections. Statistically, nearly one out of every 10 patients admitted to a hospital develops such an infection, and the authors suggest that one possible reason is the increasing occurrence of a particular strain of staph known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). Development of MRSA may have occurred due to the over-prescription of general antibiotics, which led to resistant and virulent infections that doctors can only treat with more and stronger antibiotics, which exacerbate the problem at hand.

Hospital expenditure related to staph infections have increased from $8.7 billion in 1998 to $14.5 billion in 2003. This rising cost includes things such as extended hospitalization periods and additional operations, medication, and lab tests. Gary Noskin, lead author from Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, suggested that the reason the economic burden has been increasing at a faster rate than the number of infections themselves may be that hospital costs have been increasing more quickly. However, the authors were not able to determine the extent to which MRSA infections directly contribute to costs because hospitals typically use the same codes for MRSA as for regular staph infections. "We do suggest that coding standards should be changed to more accurately reflect the difference between these two bacteria so we can better understand the impact of MRSA," said Dr. Noskin.

On the bright side, the staph-related hospital mortality rate has been dropping nearly 5 percent each year. The authors believe this may be due to stricter infection control, screening programs or the improvement of treatment of MRSA infections. Furthermore, the reported increases in the number of infections may also be due to improved infection detection and reporting practices by hospitals and doctors. However, the danger of MRSA infections cannot be ignored, and other antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria are quickly becoming a dangerous reality that have followed healthcare into the 21st century.

Author: Andrew Wang

Reviewed by: Frances Mao

Published by: Konrad Sawicki