Surgeons in an operating room. (stock photo)

Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011 | One would expect the state of California to issue its first-ever statistics on hospital-acquired infections with some pride of ownership. After all, state employees mastered a grueling task as they gathered — and pried — these numbers from facilities that never before had made them public.

But there has been no drum roll, no self-congratulatory trumpeting that, for the first time, California consumers can learn the infection rates of their local hospitals.

Instead, in a rare form of self-flagellation, the Department of Public Health is tearing apart its own work — work that took more than a year to complete by a program paid for with $3.8 million in state and federal funds.

Rather than encouraging and then advising consumers how to look up their hospitals’ data, the department’s leaders are issuing so many caveats that busy consumers may not even consult the report.

For instance, that report — issued Thursday afternoon on the eve of a long holiday weekend — came with a short statement from department director Dr. Mark Horton, cautioning that the state’s data gathering started too late to standardize the reporting.

His bottom line: Don’t use the report to compare one hospital with another.

That message echoed cautions from a number of hospital officials that consumers might be misled if they compare, say, the total of MRSA cases of one hospital with another.

“This information is so limited that I don’t think it provides much information at all,” said Kevin Reilly, the department’s chief deputy director for policy and programs.

But is that information wrong?

What if the parent of a child needing surgery were to look up the infection rates at, say, two nearby major hospitals? Can that parent trust those numbers?

“There is no reason to believe that information is not correct,” Reilly told the Center for Health Reporting on Monday.

So there is value in this report after all. Even so, the department’s warnings have produced a string of newspaper stories stating that the report “disappoints” and is “unreliable.”

“I think their intent is to cause confusion for consumers so that they disregard the content,” Carole Moss told the Center on Monday. She sits on the state advisory panel for hospital-acquired infections. “They are so in bed with these hospitals,” she said of the state agency.

This report is a product of Moss’s wish that parents like her can look up infection data. After her son Nile died of a hospital-acquired infection, Moss successfully lobbied for “Nile’s Law,” signed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in September 2008; it requires hospitals to make that data public.

Now, 27 months later, the effort continues.

Starting last April, California’s hospitals have been required to submit the data through the National Healthcare Safety Network, an electronic system overseen by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Horton and Reilly both predict that the system will eventually produce a report robust enough by their standards to allow the comparison of hospitals.

But Reilly warns that will take time. Some hospitals are struggling with the new system, he said.

The anticipated release of the next report: 12 months from now, on or before Jan. 1, 2012.

In the meantime, click here for a list of hospitals that didn’t report their infection data to the state.

The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting partners with news organizations across the state to produce in-depth reporting on healthcare issues of importance to consumers and policymakers.

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