August 15, 2014

Acronyms of Doom

When I was in medical school, U.S. hospitals were plagued by only one kind of “superbug” or antibiotic resistant bacteria. Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, abbreviated as MRSA and pronounced “mursa,” was the Enemy and it had been around since the early 1960s. I remember the yellow precaution signs on the door of rooms housing patients infected with this organism and the ritual donning of a yellow gown and surgical gloves before entering those rooms. Staph colonizes the skin of healthy people; if it enters the body through a break in the skin it can cause a serious infection, and if the staph is resistant to what was previously the best drug for treating it, the patient can be in trouble.

Then in the late 1980s, along came another bad actor, Vancomycin-Resistant Enterococci (VRE). Enterococci normally inhabit the gastrointestinal tract; sometimes they escape and when they do, for example through fecal contamination of a wound, they can cause significant mischief. Enterococcal infections had come under control with the antibiotic vancomycin—until they developed resistance. Now, MRSA and VRE have been joined by a new threat: Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE). According to a study published this month, the rate of detection of this infection has jumped five-fold in 5 years. And the mortality from these infections ranges from 48% to 71%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta took the extreme measure of classifying CRE as an urgent threat. Only 2 other organisms currently share this honor.

The newest superbug, like MRSA and VRE before it, is something that healthy people don’t normally contract. Its victims are patients in nursing homes and hospitals, especially people who are connected to a medical device such as a ventilator or a catheter (whether urinary or intravenous). Debilitated older people are at particularly high risk. The CDC offers a 4-prong strategy for attacking the problem (preventing infection in the first place, tracking resistant organisms, improving the use of today’s antibiotics, and promoting the development of new antibiotics). I suggest an additional strategy that is rarely discussed: keeping frail, old people out of the hospital altogether.

From the time that the hazards of hospitalization were first recognized 50 years ago, the main way doctors have proposed dealing with them is to try to make hospitals safer. Old people become confused in the hospital? Don’t give them sedating medicines that make them confused. Old people fall in the hospital? Use bed alarms and chair alarms to alert nurses that they are getting up. These tactics and others can be helpful, but they don’t eliminate the dangers of the hospital and some interventions, such as side-rails on hospital beds, increase rather than decrease risk. Similarly, our first impulse as we try to control superbugs such as CRE is to reach for the precaution gowns to keep nurses and doctors from spreading the germs. Because antibiotic resistant bacteria are so great a problem, we need to respond with a multi-prong strategy. So yes, educating physicians to use antibiotics judiciously (preventing the development of resistance in the first place) and encouraging pharmaceutical companies to design new effective antibiotics are important. But let’s not forget that in most cases, the patient would not have gotten the infection if he or she hadn’t been in the hospital—these are generally hospital-acquired infections, not the reason for the hospitalization. Sometimes, frail old patients can be treated satisfactorily outside the hospital. Finding an alternative to hospital care is a way to avoid a growing list of “adverse reactions to hospitalization,” including delirium (acute confusion), incontinence, falls, and all those acronyms spelling doom, MRSA, VRE, and now CRE. 

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