3-year effort aims to cut back on hospital-related infections in California

An unoccupied hospital room.
An unoccupied hospital room.
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Going to the hospital is a leading cause of death in this country. Nearly 100,000 people die each year because of illnesses they get from being inside hospitals.

Nearly one in 20 patients entering a U.S. hospital ends up with an infection they didn't have to start with, unrelated to their initial problem. You might say there is an epidemic of hospital errors.

A group of California hospitals has been teaming up in an experiment to implement some basic public health procedures inside hospitals to prevent infections and deaths.

More than 160 hospitals are sharing ways to prevent infections over a three-year program.

The campaign began more than a year ago and the number of pneumonia cases linked to hospital ventilators has dropped by 40 percent in that time.

Dr. Eugene Grigsby is president of the National Health Foundation, a nonprofit participant in the campaign. He says that the biggest challenge will be making sure that everyone on hospital staffs, including doctors, follows best practices.

“You do it eight, nine, 10, 12 times and there’s a tendency to say 'Oh I know how to do this' without following the checklist," Grigsby says. "And so systematically it’s like washing the hands – 'Oh I know I’m supposed to wash my hands – I’m in a hurry, there’s an emergency, I need to get to this patient.' No, you need to wash your hands first.”

While handwashing may seem like an obvious safety precaution for hospitals, Grigsby says the reality is much bleaker.

"Focus on hand-washing is a tremendous effort across hospitals," Grigsby says. "You'd be surprised how many professionals, and particularly unfortunately physicians, do not wash their hands from patient to patient."

The new campaign also establishes more effective procedures for testing incoming patients for infection. Previously, some patients would enter a hospital and spread their infection, unbeknownst to doctors or staff, Grigsby says.

California’s Regional Hospital Associations and Anthem Blue Cross also have joined the effort. The state Department of Public Health estimates that 12,000 people die each year in California from hospital-related infections.

Grigsby says that their hospital campaign has already saved 800 lives, but the ultimate goal is to completely eliminate hospital acquired infections.

Audio: KPCC’s Shirley Jahad talked about the effort with Dr. Eugene Grigsby, president of the National Health Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving patient safety.