New blood sought for vanished state infections panel

Something unusual happened inside California’s public health agency last month, unbeknownst to the general public.

An agency advisory panel shut down. It put itself out of business after approving new rules for its own makeup. The state’s Healthcare Associated Infection Advisory Committee is kaput.

Now the state Department of Public Health is looking for fresh blood for a new panel, people who want to curb infections that can sicken, maim or even kill hospital patients. If that describes you, the deadline to apply is Oct. 19.

So, what’s the story here? As any Sacramento journalist can tell you, most state panels are tenacious bodies that don’t disappear overnight.

Yet in this case, an all-new panel may help re-energize California’s battle against central line infections, MRSA, Clostridium difficile and other infections that kill countless thousands of people nationwide each year.

I’ve been writing about this committee since 2010, when it helped launch California’s first public report on infection rates at nearly 400 hospitals statewide.

Its meetings could be long, dull, thick with acronyms and epidemiology. Most of its members were infection control experts from the same hospitals required to do the reporting. Only people with an intimate knowledge of the health department’s website could locate its hard-to-find agendas and minutes.

A handful of patient advocates lobbied for more consumer-friendly reports, only to be outvoted by a committee majority worried that the public would be misled by the data. That attitude led to the design of some reports that were, put politely, unreadable.

Yet in the end, this staid group accomplished some Herculean tasks.

It was formally created in 2007, at a time when California lagged behind many other states in the national movement toward publicizing the infections and hospital errors that the health care industry historically kept behind closed doors.

In 2008, California became the 28th state to enact a law requiring the public reporting of infections, and the panel helped make that reality. Money was tight—members sometimes had to pay their own way to the Sacramento meetings—and budget cuts forced the entire group on hiatus for 14 months.

With the committee’s help, the state caught up. California is now among the few states to publicly report cases of C. difficile and surgical site infections.

In the process, the panel seems to have run out of steam. The chairwoman resigned months ago. So did a number of other members. The last time I checked, its website was still missing minutes for all three 2012 meetings.

I listened in by phone on parts of the Sept. 6 meeting and was struck by how most members sounded worn out.

Now Dr. Ron Chapman, the health department’s director, has posted an invitation to apply for seats on the new committee. Those eligible, he writes, include local health department officials, infection control experts, doctors, health care providers, hospital administrators and health care consumers. Chapman will select up to three members from each group.

Like the group’s minutes, the letter is hard to find on the department website, requiring five clicks and a mastery of the site.

Let’s hope that Chapman’s public affairs staff posts the letter on the CDPH home page and sends out media releases to journalists so that they can alert the public.

Too many people are still getting infections in California’s hospitals. A robust, energetic advisory group is one way to keep those patients healthy – and alive.



Deborah Schoch

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