Hawaii Public Kept in Dark about Hospital Infections

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Yvonne Hanato-Well’s son crashed into a tree three years ago while driving home one night on the Big Island. Suffering severe trauma to his head, neck and spine, the 19-year old was flown to a Honolulu hospital for treatment.

Two weeks into his hospital stay, he was diagnosed with MRSA – a drug-resistant staph infection that can be fatal. He was given 10 days to live if he didn’t respond to antibiotics.

He is one of an unknown number of Hawaii residents who have acquired the infection in a local health-care facility.

Health-care associated infections are the sixth leading cause of death in the country, killing more people than automobile accidents and homicides combined, and the associated cost to the health-care system is estimated to be as high as $45 billion, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Up to 70 percent of the infections are believed to be preventable.

States have increasingly adopted laws mandating that health-care facilities report data on infection rates, but Hawaii has resisted. Thirty-one states now have laws that require health-care facilities to report data to either the federal or state governments.

Hawaii passed similar legislation this year. But the Safe Patient Project, an organization that tracks state laws mandating reporting and public disclosure of infection rates, is now considering taking Hawaii off its list.

The actual law that passed was a stripped-down version of the originally proposed bill. Rather than mandating health-care facilities to report data to either the state or federal government, it says that they shall follow federal rules — which are optional.

“We don’t want to force people to do things that they don’t want to do,” said Sarah Park, the state epidemiologist at the Hawaii Department of Health. “These are our partners, the hospitals, the people in the health-care community.”

But advocates of public disclosure of facility-specific data argue it’s important to consumers, and pressures health-care facilities to follow protocols that can significantly reduce infection rates.

A perceived reluctance on the part of the state health department has led some to argue that the state isn’t looking out for the public interest.

“The health department sees itself as more responsible to the hospitals than the public,” said Lisa McGiffert, who directs the Safe Patient Project for Consumers Union, a nonprofit consumer protection organization. “They don’t sense any public responsibility to account for thousands of people dying throughout the state from preventable infections.”

One in every 20 patients contracts an infection through a health-care procedure and about 90,000 people die each year from such infections, according to the CDC. The CDC doesn't have specific data for Hawaii.

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