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Hospital-Induced Fatalities Gets Public Airing

Today the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform investigated the 6th leading cause of death in the U.S.: infections from hospital errors. Last year alone, a startling 100,000 people died from hospital-associated infections and almost 2 million suffered non-fatal health problems.

Democratic and Republican Committee members and witnesses shared their astonishment at the volume of deaths. Henry A. Waxman, (D-Calif.), committee chairman, noted that thousands of deaths can be prevented by elementary procedures like hospital personnel washing their hands and using clippers instead of a razor to remove hair before surgery. “You seem to be of one mind,” Waxman said to the witnesses representing government and the medical profession. “Unlike other causes of death, this is one we know how to reduce.”

Less clear is how much government can do to reduce them. Cynthia Bascatta, Director of Health Care Issues at the Government Accountability Office, said one way to alleviate the problem is to improve information-sharing between the Centers for Disease Control and other agencies under the Department of Health and Human Services. In fact, four different agencies are compiling their own data on hospital associated infections. As Arthur Allen reported for The Independent, former CDC scientists believe the agency’s hospital infection program is increasingly dysfunctional.

Questions of competence aside, witnesses argued that government health agencies need to go back to basics. “The federal government spends a dollar on medical research for every penny on safety and the health-care industry,” said Peter Pronovost, medical director at the Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care at The John Hopkins University.

The most controversial solution to the hospital infection problem was returned to time and again by Rep. Tom Davis, the committee’s ranking Republican. Davis wants to end reimbursements to hospitals that treat medicare patients who contracted hospital-associated infections. Hospital infections cost $5 billion a year, which Davis said creates a “perverse incentive,” where the government pays the hospital to treat a problem the hospital caused.

Can any of these solutions be quickly implemented to curtail the hospital death epidemic? Hospital associated infections are a distressingly simple problem. But revisions in the government health care system during a lame duck Bush administration could be a bridge too far.

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