How to avoid deadly superbug infections in the hospital

Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, where an outbreak has occurred, did not do well in our hospital Ratings

Published: February 19, 2015 12:00 PM
Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae is linked to an outbreak of a deadly infection.

The outbreak of a deadly antibiotic-resistant infection at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles, which has already led to two deaths and seven infections, is a stark reminder of the risks patients face every time they enter a hospital.

An estimated 650,000 patients per year in the U.S. develop an infection while in the hospital, and almost 75,000 die as a result, suggests research from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And our hospital Ratings find that many hospitals, including Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, don't do a good job of preventing those infections.

In fact, in our most recent hospital Ratings, Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center got our second lowest-rating in preventing infections. And only about 13 percent of hospitals, or about 350 nationwide, got our highest overall infection Rating (see the chart below).

Here's what you need to know about three common hospital-acquired infections, including Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae (CRE), which is the infection implicated in the recent outbreak, as well as Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and Clostridium difficile (c. difficile).   

Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae

Patients at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center were  exposed to this bacterium during endoscopic procedures between October 2014 and January 2015, the university said. The CDC considers CRE to be one of the deadliest that develop in hospitals because it's resistant to most known antibiotics. The bacteria can cause infections of the bladder or lungs, leading to coughing or chills. CRE infections have been reported in every state except Idaho, Alaska, and Maine. The infection was responsible for the deaths of 610 people in 2013.

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus

Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus

MRSA is also resistant to several antibiotics. The infection was linked to 11,000 deaths in 2011, though rates have declined since then. The infections often develop during or after surgery, or can be traced to urinary catheters or central-line catheters, which are used to provide intravenous nutrition, fluid, and medication to seriously ill hospital patients. So health care workers must wash their hands before they put on their sterile gloves and touch catheters. Urinary catheters should also be removed as soon as possible; the longer one stays in, the greater the risk of infection.

Clostridium difficile

Clostridium difficile

C. difficile spreads when someone with con­taminated hands touches a medical device, or someone touches a contaminated surface, then their mouth, eyes, or nose. It has become common in part because of the overuse of antibiotics, which kill good bacteria in the gut, allowing C. diff to take hold. Controlling that centers on vigorous hand washing, which is needed to physically break down a hard shell that forms around the bacterium. Yet a recent Consumer Reports survey found that many health care providers don't do that. About 20 percent of patients develop hard-to- treat infections; 14,000 patients per year die as a result. Taking probiotics might also help prevent the infections.

Check our hospital Ratings, learn how to stay safe in the hospital, and find out why you should be worried about antibiotics. To help make hospitals safer, join our Safe Patient Project.

U.S. hospitals that earned our top marks in preventing infections

The 37 hospitals listed below are the only ones in the country that got our highest Rating in preventing surgical-site infections, central-line infections, and infections stemming from urinary catheters. (Data is from April 2012 to March 2013.) 

—Joel Keehn

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