24 November 2008

British infection control: Epic fail

Via the Guardian comes news that British hospitals are failing miserably at hygiene and infection-control targets set by the Healthcare Commission, a government-funded but independent watchdog agency somewhat analogous to the United States' Joint Commission (formerly called JCAHO).

While community-associated MRSA is still a somewhat new story in the the UK, hospital or nosocomial MRSA is a major epidemic, with resistant Clostridium difficile ("C.diff") coming close behind. So there has been significant attention paid in the UK to improving infection control programs in hospitals, through the vehicle of benchmarks set for the National Health Service trusts (essentially, regional organizational groupings of hospitals).

And the results, according to unannounced spot-checks made by the UK commission, are appalling. Only 5 of 51 trusts ( 51 = 30% of all acute-care hospitals in the UK) that were checked hit the mark. For those slow at math, that means 3% of UK hospitals are doing what they should to protect patients from infections they cause. (UPDATE: To be fair, if we assume the "5 out of 51" holds true across the NHS, then 10% are doing what they should. That's still appalling.)
"At nearly all trusts we have found gaps that need closing," said Anna Walker, the commission's chief executive. "It is important to be clear that at these trusts we are not talking about the most serious kind of breaches. But these are important warning signs to trust boards that there may be a weakness in their systems." (Byline: Sarah Boseley)
How weak? This weak, according to the commission's own report:
  • 27 of the 51 trusts inspected were failing to keep all areas of their premises clean and well maintained. These lapses covered issues ranging from basic cleanliness, to clutter which makes cleaning difficult, to poorly maintained hospital interiors.
  • One in five trusts in this sample did not comply with all requirements for the decontamination of instruments and other equipment used in the care of patients. Trusts that breached this duty tended to have no clear strategy for decontamination or to lack an effective process to assure compliance.
  • In one in eight trusts, the provision of isolation facilities was not adequate. The containment of infections is extremely important to managing outbreaks. Hospitals without adequate facilities must ensure they have contingency plans so that the risk of infections spreading between patients is minimised.
  • For over one in five trusts there were issues related to staff training, information and supervision. While training on preventing and controlling infection was often in place, boards could not always ensure that training days were well attended or that staff used their knowledge in practice.
UK hospitals have until next April to learn to hit these benchmarks or be held accountable under a new Care Quality Commission.

For infection-control geeks, the full text of the "hygiene code" which the hospitals must abide by is here. Details of inspections at individual trusts are here.

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