NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


January 15, 2010

In recent history, hospitals have become increasingly successful at making people sick -- or worse.  Studies show that each year, 100,000 Americans die from medical mistakes, and that health care associated infections account for an estimated 1.7 million infections and 99,000 associated deaths each year.  But, as National Public Radio's (NPR) health blog recently reported, two recent reports show that following some pretty basic practices can prevent infections and save lives.

For example:

  • These low-tech answers include bathing patients before surgery and swabbing their noses with antibiotic ointment.
  • One of the studies found that "when doctors clean the area on the patient's body where surgery will be performed with chlorexidine, an antiseptic, their patients get 40 percent fewer infections than those cleaned with iodine, another antiseptic."

Getting in the habit of hand-washing (and in doing so, taking their own advice) will also go a long way toward enabling health care providers to better heal patients.  In fact, NPR reports that Peter Pronovost, a Johns Hopkins professor, earned a 2008 MacArthur Fellowship just for devising a simple five-point, pre-surgery to-to list that includes, believe it or not, washing one's hands.

But there's another act to which health care providers have become-perhaps wrongly—habituated: dosing patients with antibiotics to keep infection at bay.

To wit, recent news reports show that in Norway, cutting back on the amount of antibiotics used to treat patients has led to its ability to control Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), a strain of Staphylococcus aureus bacteria that resists many antibiotics, including penicillins and the cephalosporins.

An Associated Press (AP) story from December 31 details Norway's approach -- which, in a nutshell, entails prescribing significantly fewer antibiotics than patients are likely to receive in other countries and then isolating patients that do develop serious infections due to bacteria such as MRSA:

  • In Norway, MRSA has accounted for less than 1 percent of staph infections for years.
  • That compares to 80 percent in Japan, the world leader in MRSA; 44 percent in Israel; and 38 percent in Greece.

And it's not just MRSA that Norway has been successfully dodging -- it's also been avoiding the high costs of treating it:

  • In the United States, cases have soared and MRSA cost $6 billion last year.
  • Rates have gone up from 2 percent in 1974 to 63 percent in 2004.

Source: Mary Catherine O'Connor, "The Latest, Greatest Tools for Health Care Reform: Soap, and Fewer Drugs," TriplePundit, January 13, 2010.

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