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Infection Control Homepage

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Medicare failed to investigate suspicious infection cases from 96 hospitals

By Christina Jewett, Kaiser Health News

Almost 100 hospitals reported suspicious data on dangerous infections to Medicare officials, but the agency did not follow up or examine any of the cases in depth, according to a report by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office.

Most hospitals report how many infections strike patients during treatment, meaning the infections are likely contracted inside the facility. Each year, Medicare is supposed to review up to 200 cases in which hospitals report suspicious infection-tracking results.

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The IG said Medicare should have done an in-depth review of 96 hospitals that submitted “aberrant data patterns” in 2013 and 2014. Such patterns could include a rapid change in results, improbably low infection rates or assertions that infections nearly always struck before patients arrived at the hospital.

The IG’s study, released Thursday, was designed to address concerns over whether hospitals are “gaming” a system in which it falls to the hospitals to report patient-infection rates and, in turn, the facilities can see a bonus or a penalty worth millions of dollars. The bonuses and penalties are part of Medicare’s Inpatient Quality Reporting program, which is meant to reward hospitals for low infection rates and give consumers access to the information at the agency’s Hospital Compare website.

The report zeroes in on a persistent concern about deadly infections that patients develop as a result of being in the hospital. A recent British Medical Journal report identified medical errors as the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Hospital infections particularly threaten senior citizens with weakened immune systems.

Rigorous review of hospital-reported data is important to protect patients, said Lisa McGiffert, director of the Consumers Union’s Safe Patient Project.

“There’s a certain amount of blind faith that the hospitals are going to tell the truth,” McGiffert said. “It’s a bit much to expect that if they have a bad record they’re going to ’fess up to it.”

Yet there are no uniform standards for reviewing the data that hospitals report, said Dr. Peter Pronovost, senior vice president for patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine.
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