Blog | Thursday, February 21, 2013

The fact-filled infection control guideline

I'm not sure what about this tweet got me to thinking about infection control. Before hopping on Twitter this morning, I was happily building Lego scenes with my kids and thinking about this afternoon's Indiana-Iowa basketball game (Dan - thanks for the tickets!). In infection control, there isn't a direct equivalent to the "mindless symmetry" in political journalism mentioned by Jay Rosen, which treats talking points on both sides of the aisle as equivalent without considering the facts. However, there is a similar "mindless" glossing-over of the facts by public health and society guideline committee members that appears in every hospital acquired infection guideline (HAI)--recommendations based on minimal data. Instead, many (can I suggest most) of the recommendations in HAI guidelines are based on uncontrolled before-after quasi-experimental studies, expert opinion and perpetuated dogma.

Mike Edmond, MD, FACP, pointed out a few days ago what can happen when a medical specialty, such as hospital epidemiology, recommends policies like mandatory masks for unvaccinated healthcare workers during influenza season, which are based on minimal data. I'm not even going to mention mandatory influenza vaccination for health care workers. But what about other claims in guidelines and by policy makers? Do we have enough evidence to support many of our interventions including most stewardship recommendations? And what about the claim that MDR-Gram negative outbreaks could be controlled if not for the unwilling health care worker?

What happens when we perpetuate opinion and dogma? Although 270-page hand hygiene guidelines may make us feel good, I'm worried that they prevent us from identifying areas where we need research (hand hygiene improvement interventions, anyone?) and lead us to spending days and weeks implementing ineffective or even harmful interventions. Does anyone stop to think how these fact-challenged guidelines might be hurting our patients and eroding our reputations? It seems to me that we shouldn't be spending our political capital implementing "expert opinion" since it will hinder our efforts when we actually are armed with evidence-based interventions. Imagine that day!

So my wish is that guideline committees only include recommendations based on evidence, not opinion or dogma, no matter how hard politically that is for them in the short term. In the long term, if we insist on evidence, we might actually get evidence; someone might notice and start funding infection prevention studies. (e.g. What do you mean we don't know how to halt the spread of MDR-GNRs??) And if our guidelines are shorter and filled with evidence-based recommendations, clinicians in the field will be able to focus on interventions that actually work and not spend their valuable time on willy-nilly dogma-of-the-day recommendations that harm our reputations or worse, our patients.

Eli N. Perencevich, MD, ACP Member, is an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist in Iowa City, Iowa, who studies methods to halt the spread of resistant bacteria in our hospitals (including novel ways to get everyone to wash their hands). This post originally appeared at the blog Controversies in Hospital Infection Prevention.