State's first report on hospital infections disappoints

California’s first attempt to shed light on the prevalence of potentially lethal superbugs in hospitals was roundly dismissed as a disappointment after state public health officials released long-awaited data on hospital-borne infections.

State regulators and industry representatives acknowledged that the data released were of limited value because of inconsistent reporting standards and the fact that many hospitals did not fully participate in the state-mandated project.

The data disclosed Thursday also provided little context to explain why some hospitals seemed to have higher rates of infections than others in the same category.

Still, it’s a welcome step toward transparency and cooperation between the patients being served and the staff providing the care, said Vicki Warnock, director of infection control for Catholic Healthcare West’s three local hospitals — French Hospital Medical Center in San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande Community Hospital and Marian Medical Center in Santa Maria.

But she said Monday that the data is limited in the way information is presented.

“It is alarming how complicated it is,” Warnock said. “We’ve been doing this internally in hospitals for years, and the data is like a language unto ourselves.

“Now it is going to be published for the public, and they need to be educated along the way so that they can understand the process,” she added.

Following criticism of the data disclosure, health officials said they would try a different approach to collecting hospital infection data this year.

The Department of Public Health was required to publicly disclose the data based on a bill passed in 2008, named Nile’s Law after 15-year-old Nile Moss of Orange County, who died of a hospital-acquired infection.

More than 12,000 Californians die each year — more than the number of traffic deaths — because of infections in hospitals, according to state health officials.

Representatives from San Luis Obispo County hospitals said they don’t expect the disclosure of the data to change current practices. Hospitals here have long tracked their infection rates, and all complied with the mandatory reporting.

The inconsistencies in the “sketchy and incomplete” data resulted in a study that doesn’t allow proper comparisons among hospitals, acknowledged Kevin Reilly, the state Public Health Department’s chief deputy director of policy and programs.

There weren’t enough staffers dedicated to training and data collection because of a hiring freeze, resulting in inconsistent responses from hospitals, Reilly said. Plus, some hospitals provided no data at all, while others didn’t report information in a uniform manner.

To fix shortcomings, the state has decided to require that hospitals report to the National Healthcare Safety Network, a Web-based reporting software using standardized definitions.

Some hospitals already voluntarily report to the website, which is operated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Reilly said consumers would be able to compare infection rates, and the standings would be risk-adjusted, so hospitals that rarely do invasive procedures don’t appear to be less prone to infection than busy hospitals with many operations.

“We have always cared about infections ... and we especially want to be sure we are not giving patients things they did not come in with,” said Nicki Edwards, director of risk and quality improvement at Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

“Our infection rates in all categories have always been very low,” Edwards said, adding that her hospital’s practice is to follow up on all incidents to see if something could have been done differently to prevent it.

“Sometimes, these things just happen — infrequently, but they do happen,” Edwards said.

“All we can control is the quality of patient care at Twin Cities,” said Jason Chang, spokesman at Twin Cities Community Hospital in Templeton. “Although we may not like the reporting process, health care as a whole is under tremendous scrutiny to provide better care with fewer resources.”

California is now one of 28 states that requires reporting of infections contracted in medical facilities. The law requires hospitals to collect data on drug-resistant staph bacteria and two other classes of infections.

Reilly cautioned against using the data to compare facilities — even though that was one of the reasons for enacting the law.

“It’s still a brand new program,” he said, adding that his agency has a lot of work to do — including the launching of uniform reporting standards — to make the effort more useful, particularly for consumers seeking information on safety and the quality of care hospitals provide.

Shaya Tayefe Mohajer of The Associated Press and Bobby Caina Calvan of The Sacramento Bee contributed to this report.