Sometimes, it seems, our elected officials think they can solve any problem if they just spend enough on it.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist recently outlined a federal approach to avian flu. “I’m very hopeful that we will invest $7.1 billion to look at prevention, to look at care, to look at treatment,” he said. “We need to be prepared.”
Dr. Frist is certainly correct about preparedness. It doesn’t take a physician to know that the proverbial ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But while we need to be ready for a possible bird-flu problem, we also shouldn’t neglect less dramatic medical problems that are killing Americans today -- especially those that can be prevented without a massive “investment” from Washington.
For example, hospital infections. They quietly kill some 103,000 patients each year, according to the New York-based Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. An estimated 2 million patients come down with hospital infections annually.
In addition to the death toll, there’s also a financial cost. A post-operative infection doubles the cost of a patient’s stay. Staph infections triple the cost. All told, hospital infections add $30 billion to the nation’s annual health bill.
But we don’t need a huge -- and expensive -- government intervention to stamp out this problem. We don’t need new drugs, either. The situation can be greatly improved if medical personal will simply wash their hands before treating patients.
That’s right. The Centers for Disease Control reports that the most effective way to reduce infection is for medical personnel to wash their hands. Yet the CDC reports that, on average, doctors wash their hands only about half the time before treating patients.
Dirty hands carry big risks. Consider a bug called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). This germ lives on everyone’s skin without causing problems. But if it gets into the bloodstream, it can be deadly. Patients who survive MRSA infection often face additional months in the hospital and even operations to take out diseased tissue.
But again, this infection can be prevented if hospitals insist on simple hygiene.