Opinion

We Deserve to Know Infection Rates

We are preparing to give health care facilities substantial taxpayer dollars to help them survive the COVID-19 crisis as part of the next relief bill. That is the right thing to do. In return, the right thing for them to do is commit to full accountability and total transparency on how they prevent infections and keep their patients safe from preventable harm. 

This is not just a detail for policy wonks to research for the stimulus bill. This is life and death for my family and yours, as I learned in the most tragic way possible. 

My mom, Judie Burrows, was a 69-year-old active retired schoolteacher when she fell while riding her bike and broke her hip. Mom spent eight days in the hospital in excruciating pain. She lost half the blood in her body during a routine partial hip surgery. A series of preventable errors left her with permanent brain damage. Over the decade that followed, my mom went from rehab to nursing homes to hospitals and back again, finally landing in hospice, suffering dozens of infections and errors along the way. 

I recounted all this in my 2018 HBO documentary, “Bleed Out”: Mom lost her home, independence and 50-year life savings, but she survived long past the experts’ predictions. She passed away in January this year, just before the coronavirus invaded the United States. 

Mom might have just been another statistic, if the pandemic had come to our shores sooner. More than 40 percent of the deaths from COVID-19 to date are nursing home residents. Thanks to very recent public reporting by the agency that runs Medicare, we now know that residents of some nursing homes were 10 times more likely to die from the pandemic than at other facilities. 

There is no excuse for that. Yes, the coronavirus is “novel” but the spread of infectious disease is as old as time, and health systems should be well prepared to prevent infections as a routine part of their work. They shouldn’t need a pandemic to do it well. 

Part of the problem is we don’t track infections, so we don’t hold these systems accountable. Only a subset of hospitals are required to report infections to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and then only for inpatient care. Outpatient surgery, ambulatory surgery centers, emergency rooms, nursing homes, assisted living and hospice centers have not been required to report infections. And even then, with what’s left of required public reporting, federal officials temporarily suspended the hospital reporting mandate because of the coronavirus. How is this possible? While we all want to support hospitals through this crisis, this is not the way to do it. Never has there been a moment in history when Americans care more about hospital infection rates. 

It is time for Congress to set the record straight and put a priority on transparency. According to CDC data, 99,000 Americans died from hospital-acquired infections in 2002. The hazards of infection have always been alarming, and Congress has not done enough to address the problem.

There is a proposal from AARP and a nonprofit watchdog organization, called The Leapfrog Group, signed by more than 100 patient advocacy organizations and regular people like me, to do just that. It calls for required nationwide public reporting of infection rates through the CDC. Further, the proposal urges Congress to make infection rates for all health care facilities available to the public. This includes all of the health care facilities where we put our trust and faith.

With data routinely collected and published the same way at the national level, the CDC can pinpoint hot spots early on, and we can make decisions about where to send our family members. This data gives health care workers insight into how their facility compares in keeping infections at bay — and gives their leadership and board impetus to demand improvement. And it is essential for our preparedness for the next outbreak.

As Congress debates policy options for the next COVID-19 response package, we can let our elected officials know this is important to us. 

I had the privilege of shining a light on my mom. Now it’s time for Congress to do its job and shine a light on all Americans harmed by infections. 

 

Steve Burrows is a comedian and filmmaker who became an avid patient advocate after what was supposed to be a routine hip surgery for his mother landed her with permanent brain damage and mobility issues following a weeks-long coma, all of which he chronicled in his HBO documentary, “Bleed Out.” 

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