St. Mary Medical Center recognized for big strides in fighting infection

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WALLA WALLA -- Providence St. Mary Medical Center in Walla Walla was recently honored for its efforts in taking a healthy swing at combating patient infection.

This spring it received a national award from the Department of Health and Human Services and Critical Care Societies Collaborate. The Sustained Improvement Award for achievements in eliminating infection associated with health care facilities.

Health-care associated infection affects about 1.7 million people in the United States each year and kills about 99,000. Such infections are caused by a wide variety of common and unusual bacteria, fungi and viruses during the course of receiving medical care, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"Medical advances have brought lifesaving care to patients in need, yet many of those advances come with a risk of HAI. These infections related to medical care can be devastating and even deadly," the agency said.

The organization issued 1,200 recommendations for reducing such infections in heath-care facilities and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recently released data on hospital-acquired infections.

In 2008 that federal agency began reducing or denying reimbursement for the additional care required to treat patients with such infections, including bed sores and catheter-associated urinary-tract infections.

In 2007, St. Mary took a renewed look at its own rates of health-care associated infections, especially ventilator-acquired pneumonia, known in the industry as VAP.

"Although the Providence St. Mary rate seemed small, it was higher than the national average and higher than most of the other hospitals in the Providence Health & Services system," noted Kathleen Obenland, director of public relations.

St. Mary pulled together a team of managers, supervisors and health-care staff to research best practices and developed policies, procedures and tools to reduce the risks of VAP. Others included respiratory therapists, emergency department professionals and an "infection preventionist," one of the new terms to spring up in the field of prevention.

The changes implemented through the team's research were many. Among them was positioning the head of the bed at an angle to keep lungs as clear as possible; changing the types of tubing used and educating patients and their families; and reformatting how sedation is handled.

Tubing in ventilated patients, for example, used to go down a patient's nasal passage to reach the lungs. Rethinking that route, the team realized it made more sense to insert the tube through the mouth, therefore not introducing germs from the sinuses to the process.

While it costs money up front to make the necessary system-wide changes, a single case of ventilator-associated pneumonia costs nearly $18,000, according to national standards.

St. Mary's rate of VAP has stood at zero since mid-2009, said Obenland.

"Not only does that spare patients the ordeal ... it also saves health-care dollars."

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