Secondary bugs cost £1bn and 5,000 lives

17 Feb 00
The head of the powerful Public Accounts Committee of MPs has slammed health authorities and trusts for not taking seriously the threat of infections picked up by patients in hospitals.

18 February 2000

A National Audit Office report published this week estimated that hospital-acquired infections killed 5,000 patients each year and were a key contributor to another 15,000 deaths.

The watchdog found that hospitals spent £1bn a year dealing with 100,000 extra outbreaks of communicable diseases. But, it said, they could save around £150m a year through better hygiene.

Committee chairman David Davis said investment in infection control would save thousands of lives and improve the quality of care. Yet many hospitals are doing little to combat the problem. Davis said: 'At the root of the problem is the inconsistency in approach taken by different hospitals.

The budget available to infection control teams varies from £500 to £1m and in some places an infection control nurse has to manage more than a thousand beds, while evidence suggests an effective ratio is one nurse to 250 beds.

The NAO found that one in four service level agreements, between health authority purchasers and hospital trusts did not include specified levels of infection control. Where it was included, experts from the trust and the health authority were often not consulted. Staff, particularly doctors, were poor at handwashing, the simplest preventative measure.

There was considerable variation in the likelihood of picking up a disease in hospital. In some hospitals patients were five times more likely to contract an infection.

Infections could be expensive. A two-year outbreak of MRSA, the antibiotic-resistant bug that affects most hospitals, cost one hospital £400,000 – before taking into account longer patient stays, additional prescribing costs and the absence of staff who had been made ill by the bacterium.

The low priority given to infection control appeared to come from senior managers. Despite Department of Health guidance that chief executives must take overall responsibility for infection control, fewer than half received reports on the rates of communicable diseases contracted in their hospitals. And only 40% of trusts had a separate budget for infection control.


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