AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
While the Ebola epidemic may be a new challenge for American hospitals, infections contracted inside the hospital are not. In the United States about 1 in every 25 patients gets an infection during a hospital stay. The government collects information about six common infections in hospitals and makes this information available to the public - something it didn't do up until a few years ago. And it names names - which hospitals are doing a good job or bad job at stamping out infections.
Starting this fall, the federal government will begin penalizing hospitals with high infection rates. Jordan Rau of Kaiser Health News has been crunching the numbers, and he says there's a lot at stake.
JORDAN RAU: About 75,000 people die every year from infections that they got in a hospital. That's more than in car crashes or from breast cancer. And researchers have found that a lot of times if you post the infection rates - if you make that public, that brings a lot of self-induced pressure on hospitals to pay more attention to that...
CORNISH: A kind of name-and-shame policy?
RAU: Yes. And even if people outside of the hospital don't pay attention, the hospital executive boards are very aware of it. So about five years ago, the government set standards for how much they wanted to see particular infections drop. And then the Affordable Care Act tied infection rates to money in that hospitals would get less money if they didn't report the Rates, and also they would - starting this year, they will get less money if they do very poorly.
CORNISH: So what infections does the government report information on?
RAU: They report on two types of infections that come through catheters or flexible tubes. They also report on two very nasty bugs that are resistant to many antibiotics. One is called C. Diff and one is called MRSA. And finally, they are reporting on two types of infections that you get during surgery - one from hysterectomies and one during colon operations.
CORNISH: So let's get to the data here. Which hospitals are doing poorly when it comes to preventing infections?
RAU: About 695 hospitals did worse than average in at least one infections, and some of them are really big names - New York Presbyterian, Geisinger Medical Center, Tulane Medical Center, University of Michigan Health Systems - all did badly on several areas. And then they're just scattered. They're in pretty much every state except for one or two.
CORNISH: What sorts of penalties might these hospitals face if they continue to get low scores?
RAU: Well, coming this fall - so really any day now - we're expecting hospitals - about a quarter of them are going to lose one percent of their Medicare payments because their infection rates are too high. It's not just infections, but it's also other mishaps in hospitals like cuts and tears and falls and bed sores. And that's a significant amount of money, and this is the first time that will happen.
CORNISH: We call this a kind of name-and-shame policy. Do you get the sense or is there the sense in the hospital industry that this is, in effect, changing their approach - helping push the culture towards improvement?
RAU: There's no question that it's put more pressure on the hospitals. And some have reacted in a defensive manner and said well, you know, you're not measuring me right or my infection rate is really high because I'm really diligent in reporting every single infection and some people aren't looking for them. But everyone is paying some attention to it and trying to get their numbers better.
CORNISH: I want to end on a good note here. Can you name some hospitals that are doing well?
RAU: Yeah, there are several hospitals that handle really sick patients and complicated cases and have done excellently better than average - Duke University Hospital, Denver Health. Both of Mayo Clinic's hospitals in Rochester do terrifically, and that really shows that there is the ability to get your infection rates down for a hospital.
CORNISH: Jordan, thanks so much for speaking with us.
RAU: Thank you.
CORNISH: That's Jordan Rau. He's a reporter with our partner Kaiser Health News. And if you want to see hospital infection rates in your state, please head over to NPR's "Shots" blog.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.