Rethinking Healthcare

Can technology make hospitals a better place to be sick?

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About 30,000 people will die in American hospitals this year from catheter infections, the CDC estimates. Can technology reduce this toll? Yes, it can

A hospital is a terrible place to be sick.

It's filled with germs, terrible germs. Germs like MRSA that have faced down every antibiotic ever invented.

Some big careers have been made in the fight against hospital infections. Peter Pronovost won a MacArthur "genius grant" for showing how checklists can eliminate most of them. Donald Berwick became the head of Medicare after his 100,000 Lives campaign showed how infections could be reduced.

(The slide at right, credited to Pronovost, describes how to prevent infections. The whole slide show can be seen at the Department of Health and Human Services.)

Yet still, infections happen. Despite the fact catheter infections are now called "never events" for which insurers and government won't pay, they happen. About 30,000 people will die in American hospitals this year from catheter infections, the CDC estimates.

Can technology reduce this toll? Yes, it can:

  • Washable computer gear, which I wrote about last week, can eliminate one source of infection. If the gear is washed regularly.
  • Electronic Health Records, being installed in 85% of hospitals thanks to the HITECH stimulus, can bring  best practices, including monitoring of catheters, to the patient's bedside.
  • LEDs inside ventilators can kill bugs in the air. Strong lights can be placed inside ventilators, far from patients, reducing the chance of airborne infection.

The best technology might be regular reporting of problems to top hospital managers, according to a survey from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC) sponsored by a catheter company.

Half their members, surveyed at the group's annual meeting this week, said infections are still a problem at their facilities, and blame a lack of commitment from hospital leadership.

Members of the group say they're spending all their time looking for and reporting on infections, meaning they have little time for training people and preventing them. Automate the reporting and their time is freed up. Get those reports to hospital leaders, make them accountable for results, and they will pay attention.

Hospital infections are becoming increasingly dangerous as more bugs become immune to more drugs. But technology now making its way into hospitals will make these infections easier to detect, and free experts to train workers on checklists and other procedures making them a thing of the past.

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Dana Blankenhorn

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Dana Blankenhorn has written for the Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age's "NetMarketing" supplement and founded the Interactive Age Daily for CMP Media. He holds degrees from Rice and Northwestern universities. He is based in Atlanta. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure