2 hospitals to test for bacteria

Antibiotic-resistant germ focus of study


Two Maryland hospitals will soon begin testing methods to stop the spread of deadly antibiotic-resistant bacteria, a pilot project that could lead to changes in the way health care facilities statewide deal with this stubborn problem.

About 120,000 patients in the United States were infected with the bacteria known as MRSA in 2002, according to data from the national Centers for Disease Control. Many hospitals have struggled to prevent infections because the bacteria can pass easily among patients and staff members, and through contact with contaminated equipment.

"These infections are becoming more and more prevalent, and causing a lot of needless death and suffering," said Ann Doyle, a program manager at CareFirst, the state's largest health insurer, which is sponsoring the initiative with the Maryland Patient Safety Center and the Delmarva Foundation.

Doyle said CareFirst pledged $200,000 for the study, primarily to improve the health and well-being of the people it insures. The cost of treating MRSA infections is also an incentive. A recent study estimated the cost of treating MRSA infections at $3.2 billion to $4.2 billion annually.

Franklin Square and Johns Hopkins will be the first hospitals in the state to participate in the two-year initiative. They will pursue a three-pronged approach that includes improved hygiene practices, screening incoming patients for MRSA and isolating those who test positive, said William F. Minogue, director of the Maryland Patient Safety Center.

Similar approaches have proved remarkably successful in combating MRSA in the hospitals of some European countries, notably Denmark and the Netherlands.

"There are places in the world that have been able to vanquish MRSA," said Dr. Margaret M. Toth, chief quality officer for Delmarva, a national nonprofit focused on community health improvement.

In the European hospitals, all incoming patients are tested for MRSA, which people often carry in their noses and on their hands. Those that test positive are given their own rooms and special hygiene precautions are taken around them, including more rigorous hand-washing and the use of extra masks, gowns and gloves.

In contrast, Toth said, American hospitals have tried to counter the bacteria with drugs but have failed.

"What we did in this country for a long time was try to make better and better antibiotics," she said. "We need to try something different."

How well strategies work at Franklin Square and Hopkins will be determined by consulting with hospital workers and tracking the incidence of MRSA, using free computer software donated as part of the initiative.

"Once these hospitals get really good at it, we will spread it to the others," Minogue said.

Minogue was not sure whether the pilot hospitals would screen all incoming patients for the resistant bacteria.

The Maryland Hospital Association successfully opposed state legislation this year that would have forced hospitals to screen all patients for MRSA. The association argued that the proposed guidelines for performing the screening were unproven and that the cost of implementing them was prohibitive.

The bill's failure angered Michael Bennett of Pikesville, who said his father died in 2004 after contracting MRSA in a Maryland hospital he had entered after catching a flu virus.

"Scientific support for the approach is overwhelming," he said, referring to the success of European hospitals. "What is stopping it from happening here is bureaucracy, intransigence and inertia."


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