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What Works -- Part 4 -- Central Line Infections

Posted Oct 21 2008 12:51am
Central line-related bloodstream infections are a serious problem in hospitals. A central line is a port installed directly into a major blood vessel to permit a catheter to be used for the quick delivery of medication for patients in ICUs and in other settings. Because of the direct connection to major blood flow, an infection associated with the installation will flow quickly into the blood stream and to major organs. This article from the Centers for Disease Control attributes a mortality rate of 12 to 25 percent (!) for each infection -- not to mention increasing costs by about $25,000.

The Institute for Healthcare Improvement likewise notes that "up to 4,000 catheterized ICU patients die each year in the US from avoidable infections and organ failure (sepsis) related to central venous catheters (CVCs). . . . Forty-eight percent of ICU patients in the US have central venous catheters, accounting for 15 million central-venous-catheter-days per year in ICUs. . . . Within this population, studies indicate an estimated 4% to 20% (500-4,000) of patients will die from catheter-related bloodstream infections."

Like others in the country, the medical leadership at BIDMC decided that our current rate of central-line infections was too high and set about to change it. When we started, our average rate of central line infections per thousand patient days in the ICUs was about 3. This was better than what we often see nationally, but our doctors were impatient to improve it. After all, each case has a high potential for serious patient injury or death. So the goal is to get to zero.

This turned out to be a multi-faceted problem. Central lines are often inserted by residents who have been trained how to do the insertion by other residents. (Dr. Atul Gawande provides a vivid description of this learning process in his book Complications: A Surgeon's Notes on an Imperfect Science.) Beyond the insertion process, decisions must be made about how long the line should stay in, and how often it should be maintained. Very often, there are only informal rules of thumb in a hospital for these determinations -- and there is often wide variation even within a single hospital.

Our folks set about to make this process more rigorous, analytical, and controlled. Sessions were held among surgeons, medical doctors, anaesthesiologists, nurses, and residents to reach a consensus on the proper method for inserting a central line. A specific kit was designed, so that anyone inserting a line had the full complement of supplies at hand. Detailed rules were established for the protocols surrounding maintenance of the line and its withdrawal. And, a system was set up so that every single infection that occurred would be analyzed to determine its cause -- so corrective measures would be taken going forward.

Here are the month-to-month results for the first year of the program:

Month ----- Infection Rate
Oct 05 ----- 1.67
Nov 05 ----- 1.28
Dec 05 ----- 2.43
Jan 06 ----- 3.07
Feb 06 ----- 1.40
Mar 06 ----- 1.07
Apr 06 ----- 0.00
May 06 ----- 0.59
Jun 06 ----- 1.15
Jul 06 ----- 0.57
Aug 06 ----- 3.03
Sep 06 ----- 2.50
Oct 06 ----- 0.00

As you can see, the figure goes up and down, although progress is good. The key thing is that every single case of infection is analyzed thoroughly, with the results shared across the broad range of hospital staff in the ICUs. What goes wrong? As many things as there are people. For example, one day, our chief of medicine happened to go by as another member of the staff was not following the protocol. When he pointed it out -- and none too gently! -- the person was embarrassed and really had no excuse for doing it wrong. So human nature often comes to play. Sometimes more technical factors arise. Regardless of the cause, each case is used to reinforce the program.

With about 1600 ICU patient days per month at BIDMC, the difference between an infection rate of 0.0 and one of, say, 2.5 is 4 actual people. Over the course of a year, that same difference amounts to 48 people who either get or do not get an infection. Applying the CDC's cited mortality rate of 12 to 25 percent, the difference amounts to saving the lives of 5 to 12 people -- just at our hospital.

When you look at numbers like those, you can see why our medical staff -- and people around the country -- are rabid about making this improvement real and permanent. Doctors and nurses devote their lives to alleviating human suffering caused by disease. They are heartbroken by the thought that their own well-intentioned actions might lead to death, and they are driven to get better and better at what they do.
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