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Feds Find Wide Variation In Serious Infections Linked To Catheters

Inattention to catheters used often in ICUs can lead to serious infections.
Inattention to catheters used often in ICUs can lead to serious infections.

Across the country, 1 in 6 hospitals has high rates of one of the most serious kinds of preventable infections — those caused by catheters inserted into large veins, according to new data published by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Patients at hospitals in Maryland, Mississippi, Louisiana, Maine and New Hampshire were most likely to get blood infections caused by central lines, which are narrow tubes inserted in a major vein to inject medicine or fluids or to perform tests.

Hawaii, Alaska, South Dakota, Kansas and Indiana had the lowest rates, according to the data, which cover the first three months of 2011.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the source of the data CMS is publishing on its Hospital Compare website, says there were about 41,000 infections throughout hospitals linked to central lines in 2009. A line that hasn't been cleaned or is inserted incorrectly can lead to germs getting into a patients' bloodstream. CMS says treating these infections adds about $17,000 to a hospital stay.

About a fourth of the patients die from the infection, which should be preventable if hospitals follow cautionary guidelines. As required by the 2010 federal health law, Medicare is gearing up to financially penalize hospitals with high rates of infections that are caused by the institutions.

The new data cover intensive care units at 1,146 hospitals. Medicare's evaluation found 187 hospitals ICUs with more central-line infections than at institutions of a similar type and size. Another 386 hospitals had no central line infections during the first three months of last year, according to the data. CMS didn't publish data for 2,232 hospitals, either because the hospital didn't have an ICU unit or had too few or no cases to evaluate.

Nancy Foster, vice president for quality and patient safety policy at the American Hospital Association, said hospitals welcomed the new data as more accurate than Medicare's previous infection data, which came from bills hospitals submitted to Medicare.

The new data include all patients — not just those covered by Medicare — and are based on medical records rather than bills.

Foster cautioned that the period covered by the data is short, just three months, so she said the information will become more reliable as it expands in the future. "We are very supportive of good quality information being up on Hospital Compare," Foster said.

Also, during the past decade central line infections among ICU patients have fallen quite a bit, according to a previous estimate from the CDC. The decline in infections means from 3,000 to 6,000 lives were probably saved.

For more info, check out the state figures, as calculated by CMS, in the chart on the left. The lower the score, the fewer central-line infections there were.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jordan Rau