14 August 2008

Surveillance to stop MRSA: Where, when, how costly, how much?

My colleague Joanne Kenen — longtime health policy correspondent for Reuters, now a staff member at the New American Foundation, and a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation Media Fellow with me in 2006-07 — very kindly invited me to guest-blog at the New Health Dialogue. Most of the post is reproduced below, but please be kind and visit them so they can record the hits!

Stopping the spread of MRSA in hospitals is one of the most contentious topics in infectious disease policy right now. A small sample of the, umm, highly divergent views on the subject filled up the letters pages of the Journal of the American Medical Association last week. Community-associated MRSA has grabbed the public's attention over the past year, but hospital-acquired MRSA remains a huge problem — so much so that the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services has proposed treating it as a medical error and declining to reimburse hospitals for the extra care that must be given to a patient when it occurs.

Within health care, there is vociferous debate over how to control MRSA. Because MRSA can live on the skin, nostrils and other body sites for a long period of time before causing an infection — either in the person colonized by the bug or in someone else who acquired it from the colonized person — many hospitals espouse a program of checking new patients who are most likely to be carriers, including patients in high-risk units such as ICUs, new admits from long-term care facilities, and people who have had MRSA infections on the past. But a small set of institutions are pursuing a more aggressive program, variously called "active surveillance and testing," "universal screening" or "search and destroy," that checks every inpatient for MRSA colonization and confines them to isolation until the bug has cleared.

"Search and destroy" was the topic of an important JAMA paper and editorial last March that decided the effort wasn't worthwhile. (A simultaneously published paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine completely disagreed.) The five letters in JAMA tear the topic apart, examining definitions, methodology, cost-effectiveness, adherence to infection control and more. The most intriguing suggests that "search and destroy" contains a hidden agenda: That if hospitals can demonstrate patients were carrying MRSA on admission, they may be able to make a case for any subsequent infections not being their fault — and so escape the lowered reimbursement rates that CMS proposes.

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