The Magic Bullet for Hospital-Borne Infections? Q-Tips.

A counter-intuitive story in Friday's NYTimes about hospitals that are successfully fighting drug-resistant infections. At the Pittsburgh VA Hospital, cases of drug-resistant infection have dropped 78 percent since 2001, when they instituted certain disease prevention measures.

Those measures, tellingly, are not dousing the hospital in more antibiotic solutions, but rather the simple act of swabbing incoming patients nostrils and other basic steps. Patients are quarantined if they have drug-resistant bacteria - typically methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, which I've written about recently (I love how the Times calls the bacteria "virulent" - an interesting adjective for bacteria, considering its root). Other Pittsburgh hospitals have focused on the simple act of hand-washing, which has been known to be a deterrent for infection since Semmelweis pinned it to maternal mortality in 1847 (the Freakonomics guys had a nice column about this a few months back).

The Times story doesn't get into this, but there's a reason why Pittsburgh may be ahead of the game. In 2005, the Pennsylvania Hospital Cost Containment Council, an independent state agency, issued a report that found hospitals reported 19,154 cases of infections that originated in Pennsylvania hospitals, a rate of 12.2 per 1,000 cases at a cost of $3.5 billion. Pennsylvania was the first state to collect and report information about hospital-acquired infections.

In other words, it's easier to act when you have data upon which to act.