Infections inside hospitals attacking patients

Local 2 Investigates tracks infection rates at Houston-area hospitals

By Bill Spencer - Investigative Reporter

HOUSTON - Imagine going in to the hospital for a minor procedure, but leaving with a life-changing infection. Local 2 Investigates has tracked potentially deadly diseases inside Houston-area hospitals and found some hospitals have seen infection rates "worse than the national experience."

Jim Brackeen went into the hospital for minor surgery to repair a torn achilles tendon. He left with a common hospital infection called pseudomonas.

"They had me go 10 days, twice a day, for infusions of heavy does of anti-biotics," said Brackeen, who lives in Clear Lake. "We're not talking about something that's going away."

Brackeen has battled his infection for more than two years. He spent 40 days in a hyperbaric chamber and his medical bills have topped $100,000. He even has to undergo treatment on his legs twice a day from home for the rest of his life.

"It's a miracle I'm walking at all," Brackeen said.

Brackeen is one of millions of patients to get a healthcare-acquired infection in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control says one in 25 patients get an infection and as many as 77,000 die each year because of it.

"When you start looking at those numbers, you start thinking it's a public health issue," said Dr. Luis Ostrosky, professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. "This is affecting real people who went into the hospital to get their knee done or deliver a baby. They're exposed to pathogens and they can get really sick."

Ostrosky says the problem is now taken so seriously that hospitals are changing disinfection procedures. They include simple steps like asking staff to wash their hands more often. Ostrosky says because of the added attention and changes, infection numbers are dropping. However, he says it's not enough.

"Let's make sure this happens every day with every patient," Ostrosky said. "We're so serious about this, we're going to monitor it and make sure you're doing it every day."

Now, the Texas Department of State Health Service lets you see those monitoring numbers. Two years ago, the agency started publishing infection rates hospital by hospital. The database tracks surgical site infections and bloodstream infections caused by bacteria in central lines used for seriously ill patients.

In 2012, Houston Northwest Medical Center, Kingwood Medical Center, Texas Children's Hospital and St. Luke's The Woodlands Hospital all had high central line infection rates in an intensive care unit that the state labeled "worse than the national experience."

That same year, St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, Memorial Hermann Northwest Hospital and Texas Orthopedic Hospital had high surgical site infection rates for certain surgeries.

The good news is that just a year later, all those hospitals had improved their infection rates and were off the state's "worse" list.

In 2013, Harris Health System's LBJ and Ben Taub hospitals were named "worse than the national experience" for infection rates after hysterectomies and colon surgeries.

At Texas Children's Hospital, Dr. Jeffrey Starke says the hospital's 2012 high rate of infections affected the tiniest babies in the neo-natal ICU. So, the hospital created a team to change procedures and make immediate changes.

"We were very concerned about this, and that's why we jumped on is so quickly," Starke said. "Within just a couple of months, we saw a decline in the infection rate in that unit, which has continued to this day. We're very pleased to have the public reporting. We don't mind the scrutiny at all. It helps us actually to perform better."

Patient advocate John James says you're not getting the full story when it comes to hospital infections. James, a retired NASA pathologist at the Johnson Space Center, started a non-profit group called Patient Safety America after his son died from a medical error in a Texas hospital.

The state's infection database does not include specific hospital tracking of MRSA or other "superbugs" resistant to antibiotics and James says the state has done little done to publicize that any hospital infection information is available for the public to see.

"The state health department does all this work with state tax dollars," James said. "And if it's not serving the public, what's the point? So many of the hospital are packed in the middle of the ratings. You can't discriminate one from another. So, the information you get off the website is useful, but to a limited extent."

James said most patients who came to his group after getting an infection at a hospital said they remember seeing dirty conditions. He and other experts say you should speak up when you see unclean conditions or bad practices like hospital staff not washing their hands.

Below are the official responses from hospitals who were included on the state's high infection rate list in 2012 or 2013:

Harris Health System:
"Healthcare-associated infections are a national challenge. Harris Health System is focused on eliminating all healthcare-associated infections. We have adopted nationally accepted evidence-based strategies to reduce surgical site infections in the pre-operative, operative and post-operative care environment. We have made great progress on these indicators and are committed to continuous improvement."

Note: The current reported data is from January - June 2013."

Memorial Hermann Hospital System:
"Since 2012, Memorial Hermann Northwest has improved overall quality outcomes and is no longer listed in the 2013 HAI report. Comprehensive independent ratings companies such as Truven Health Analytics, Leapfrog and HealthGrades highly rank Memorial Hermann Health System hospitals in overall patient safety and quality. Most recently, Memorial Hermann Northwest was named one of America's 50 Best Hospitals by Healthgrades, ranking it among the top one percent in the nation."

CHI St. Luke's Health:
"Patient safety is the top priority of CHI St. Luke's Health - the organization is dedicated to continually improving the quality of care provided to our patients. Our infectious-disease control staff uses a state-of-the-science electronic-monitoring system to assist in alerting us about infections within our health system, and we utilize the most current evidence-based practices to prevent and control infections. The current data for both CHI Baylor St Luke's Medical Center and CHI St Luke's The Woodlands hospital has shown significant improvement, as we continually strive to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for infections." - Debora Simmons, Senior Vice President and Chief Quality Officer, St. Luke's Health System.

Texas Orthopedic Hospital:
"Texas hospitals began public reporting of surgical site infections (SSI) data in October of 2011. Texas Orthopedic Hospital is pleased to report that the hospital has performed better than the national average for hip infections and performed at the national average with knee infections for the most current 12 months. Texas Orthopedic Hospital strives to be better than the national average."

Houston Northwest Medical Center:
"Providing high-quality patient care is our primary focus at Houston Northwest Medical Center. The data referenced in this article covers an 18-month period that ended in June 2013. Since then, our internal data shows we have improved significantly and have remained below the national incidence rate for central line bloodstream infections. We are committed to continually evaluating and improving our processes using evidence-based practices.

Kingwood Medical Center
"Texas hospitals began public reporting of central line-associated  blood stream infections (CLABSI) data in October of 2011.  The most current data for central line-associated infections indicates that Kingwood Medical Center's rankings are no different from the national average for a rolling 12 month period as measured by Hospital Compare.  For similar state reporting, the current six month CLABSI data is no different than the national average.  Kingwood Medical Center strives to be better than the national average."

Health Care-Associated Infections:

(**Data source: Texas Department of State Health Services**)

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