The time is now: We need to act to reduce surgical-site infections

How government and the NHS can help combat the risk of such medical complications.

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With the NHS doing all it can to reduce the risks to the public from Covid-19, the vital role of infection prevention in improving health outcomes has never been higher in the public consciousness or on the political agenda. As elective care resumes across the country, now is an opportune moment to reflect on how we can work together to support the health service in minimising the risks from other forms of healthcare-associated infections such as surgical-site infections (SSIs).   

Gaining a true understanding of the scale of the challenges we face from SSIs and the burden they place on the health system was the primary reason that Mölnlycke developed our new report, Time to Act: A State of the Nation Report on Surgical Site Infections in the UK. The report provides the fullest possible picture of SSI rates in the UK and their impact on patients, clinicians and the NHS. In understanding how to reduce the impact of SSIs, we reviewed the best practices taking place within the UK and around the world. 

The report finds that the challenges we face in reducing SSIs cannot be solved by policymakers or clinicians alone; they need to be met by collective action across the health system. From the industry to clinicians, from royal colleges to patient associations, we all need to act and play our part in reducing the risk of SSIs across the UK. 

The cost of SSIs to patients and the National Health Service

When a patient gets an infection after a surgical procedure, it can have a significant impact on their life and the lives of their familiy members. They may be forced to spend many months in hospital and undergo additional surgical procedures. Some patients may be forced to give up their work and subsequently experience serious financial hardship. While deaths from SSIs are mercifully rare, mortality rates are still too high, and over one-third of deaths in patients with SSIs were directly attributable to the infection.

We also know there is a significant financial cost to the NHS in connection with SSIs. There is no agreed figure of the total cost of SSIs to the NHS, but we know that the financial impact is considerable. Each SSI is estimated to cost just over £10,000 per person, with deep-incisional SSIs costing a staggering £100,000 per patient. An SSI can also significantly increase the cost of a particular surgery, doubling it in some instances. There are also the damages that may be paid as a result of legal action concerning clinical negligence. At a time when NHS budgets are under extraordinary pressures from the challenges of Covid-19, the financial burdens of SSIs are one cost that we should not be compelled to bear.   

The national picture of SSI rates 

But what is the extent of the problem throughout the country? The picture across all surgeries is, unfortunately, far from clear. One of the difficulties in estimating the true impact of SSIs is the current methods by which they are reported across the four nations of the UK. Nationwide surveillance and data capture for the number of SSIs began only in 1997 with the introduction of voluntary submissions of data from NHS trusts in orthopaedic surgery. Mandatory reporting for SSI rates in orthopaedic surgery was first introduced in 2005, and many trusts now voluntarily report rates for over 13 other surgical categories. This is of course a welcome development and has greatly supported hospital trusts in benchmarking their own performance for some surgical categories, but much more needs to be done to expand the surveillance into other surgical areas, beyond orthopaedics. Without a full understanding of the scale of any problem, we will never know how it can be solved.   

Time to act on infection prevention 

Policymakers, who have done much to tackle the growing risk of antimicrobial resistance (AMR) with the publication of a related five-year plan, must now do more to tackle specific healthcare-associated infections such as SSIs. We urgently need to raise the level of understanding and prioritisation of SSIs among policymakers. The Time to Act report calls on the government to convene a Preventable Infections Taskforce, bringing together experts from across all four nations to produce a UK-wide strategy for further reducing all healthcare-associated infection rates. Furthermore, the next AMR Strategy needs to recognise the importance of reducing SSIs, setting a clear and deliverable target to reduce SSIs across all surgical specialties within the lifetime of the five-year AMR plan and, subsequently, for the 20-year plan. 

However, the fight to reduce SSIs will never receive the political support it truly needs without a full understanding of the scale of the problem we face in all nations of the UK. National reporting for SSIs is still nowhere near as robust as it should be. Data sets, while increasing each year, are still not of a high-enough quality, nor as comprehensive as the scale of the challenge demands. That is why we now need mandatory SSI reporting for all surgical procedures in each of the UK’s nations. Without this baseline, we will never be able to set national benchmarks against which further action can be taken at the hospital and system levels.   

A collaborative approach to SSI reduction 

The Time to Act report shows that despite the challenges we face with national data collection, when we take a collaborative approach to SSI prevention within a surgical team or across hospital trusts, we can develop highly effective interventions to help drive down SSI rates. Led by the Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust, the Quality Improvement for Surgical Teams (QIST) programme has brought together 30 trusts from across England and the British Orthopaedic Association to drive improvements in patient care. By introducing small, targeted changes to care pathways, such as decolonisation with whole-body washing and nasal-gel treatments for patients carrying MSSA, the QIST programme expects to improve patient outcomes while supporting savings of up to £6.3m to hospital trusts across the collaborative since its launch in 2013.   

Another successful national intervention is Getting It Right First Time (GIRFT), an NHS Improvement programme delivered in partnership with the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital NHS Trust. GIRFT is designed to improve the quality of care within the NHS by reducing unwarranted variations and has done much to reduce SSIs by engaging front-line clinicians in the data collection process and exploring variation in surgical practices and outcomes for a wider range of procedures and specialties. One of the key recommendations made by the GIRFT programme is for trusts to review their own surgical units’ deep SSI rates and introduce a multidisciplinary approach to reduce infection risk pre-, intra- and post-operatively – as seen to great effect in Ashford and St Peter's Hospitals NHS Trust.   

Minimising the risk of SSIs from the board to the ward   

Adopting a collaborative approach within hospitals, from the board to the ward, can also drive considerable improvements in patient care. Our report highlights a number of case studies showing that if we can raise the profile of infection control within the hospital and adopt best-practice measures across the patient’s surgical journey, trusts can drive significant improvements in SSI rates. That is why we have called for compulsory training and education programmes for healthcare professionals at all levels on the importance of infection prevention and reducing SSIs. At a time when strain is being felt across the NHS, we also need its managers to listen to evidence-based arguments from their clinical teams about what equipment they feel is needed to best deliver safe, high-quality care. 

As hospitals continue to increase elective care in the coming months, they must do so under the significant additional pressures of Covid-19. The added burden of SSIs is one that, through a collaborative approach across the health system, from Westminster to hospital wards, we can go without. It is time to act, for our patients, for our healthcare professionals and for the NHS. 

To read and download a copy of Time to Act: A State of the Nation Report on Surgical Site Infections in the UK, click here.

Nick Rothwell is Mölnlycke’s UK general manager.

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