Hospital infections too deadly to ignore

As statutes go, Nile's Law should have been a snap to implement.

The 2008 law, approved by a combined vote in the Legislature of 114-4, is aimed at informing consumers about a serious health threat.  The California Department of Public Health, hospitals, unions, and patient advocates agreed on the compromise.

As described by Sen. Elaine Alquist, the bill's author, the measure was intended to provide people with readily accessible information about hospital-acquired infections, and name hospitals and their infection rates.

An estimated 12,000 Californians die annually from infections acquired in hospitals. When Nile Moss, a 15-year-old boy, died of a drug-resistant infection acquired in an Orange County hospital in 2006, his mother, Carole Moss, embarked on a crusade to force public disclosure of the problem.

Acknowledging a problem is a basic step toward solving it. Three years after Alquist's bill became law, the state has produced partial reports, heavy on numbers and codes that mean little to people not in the health care field.

One report goes so far as to discourage people from drawing conclusions based on its data: "Comparison of the facility-specific rates within this report should be avoided because rate differences may be attributable to variations in surveillance practices as well as infection risk."

Translation: Don't pay any attention to whatever you might think you've taken away from this document.

Journalist Deborah Schoch, of the nonprofit Center for Health Reporting, and The Bee's Anita Creamer delved into the issue in a two-part series that appeared Sunday and Monday.

As Schoch reported, the Department only recently began crafting regulations to enforce the law, frustrating consumer groups and hospitals alike. Completed regulations are not expected for at least another 18 to 24 months. That's unacceptable.

Hospitals have sued to block implementation of some regulations.

"What are the hospitals afraid of?" Alquist asks.

Several other states have produced highly informative reports on the issue. In a sense, it's surprising that California is a laggard. This is a state that has led the way on many public health issues, most notably tobacco-caused disease.

The effort to inform the public about hospital infections stumbled during Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration. Now it's Gov. Jerry Brown's responsibility. Excuses about lack of money and short-handed staff are just that, excuses.

-- Editorial from the Sacramento Bee

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