PITTSFIELD — Nearly 100,000 people in the country die every year from infections that they contract while at the hospital, an issue that the health care industry is increasingly targeting as a preventable cause of death.

A $9.5 million expansion at Sebasticook Valley Health, one of three similar projects in the area, should help the small Pittsfield hospital to combat infections by making a surprisingly simple design change to the rooms that house 25 beds for patients staying one or more nights.

Once the facility has been renovated, the current system of multipatient rooms with communal bathrooms will be largely replaced by single-patient rooms with individual bathrooms.

Mike Peterson, chief administrative officer, said that the multipatient rooms, which were standard when the hospital was first built 50 years ago, have proven to be inadequate.

“In some cases we have four patients to a single toilet,” he said. “That’s really a terrible situation.”

Peterson said there have been cases where patients have gotten out of their sickbeds to use a bathroom, only to find it had been left locked by another patient staying on the other side of the bathroom.

Preventable deaths

So-called “hospital-acquired infections,” are a leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a 2011 report from the Maine Center for Disease Control.

A large body of evidence has emerged over the past 10 years linking multipatient rooms to increased risk of hospital-acquired infections; as a result, more and more hospitals, including Sebasticook, are making the switch to private rooms.

The national Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 20 hospital visits results in a hospital-acquired infection, leading to as many as 1.7 million cases across the country annually.

These cases result in annual costs of more than $30 billion dollars, with somewhere between 20 and 70 percent of those infections, and their related costs, being preventable. Each individual case costs between $16,000 and $19,000 to treat, according to the 2011 report.

Even in a hospital setting, where staff members work to avoid spreading disease, germs can be transmitted in many ways. Infectious agents can persist in a shower, hitch a ride on the vapor of an air humidifier, be transferred from one patient to another by a medical staff rushing from one patient to the next, or simply travel through the air itself.

During a review of academic studies, the Center for Health Design found that multibed hospital rooms triple the risk of influenza being spread from one patient to another in nursing homes. Patients with roommates are also at a higher risk of a wide range of other types of sickness, including everything from diarrhea to gastroenteritis.

Sue Simpson, of Waterville, said that her 91-year-old mother died after contracting an infectious disease in a multipatient room at an area long-term care facility.

“Her roommate got pneumonia and was very, very sick and we had to ask for them to seclude her or take my mother out of that room,” Simpson said.

Private rooms healthier

A study in the American Journal of Infection Control concluded that a private room and bath cuts off many of the possible paths by which a disease can be transmitted.

Single-patient rooms also reduce the number of errors committed by medical staff; staff members are more likely to sanitize their hands between patients if the patients are in separate rooms. And because the rooms have fewer distractions, staff members are also less likely to make medication dispensing errors.

At Inland Hospital, there are 14 private rooms and six rooms that have the capacity for multiple occupants. Barry said that patients are only given roommates when all of the private rooms are filled.

Barry said there are “a dozen really solid reasons” to favor private rooms, including allowing a patient to rest in a stress-free environment.

“If you went on vacation, would you want to live with complete strangers? Of course not,” he said. “Now imagine if you’re feeling absolutely horrible, and we stick you in a room with someone you don’t know. It’s stressful.”

The 2011 report from Maine’s Center for Disease Control found that Maine is doing better than the national average in almost every measure of hospital care that is related to the spread of infections.

Supersuites

While private rooms are becoming the norm, Peterson said that there are still some cases in which a multipatient room is desirable.

A year ago, Sebasticook pulled back from a preliminary assumption that all 25 of its beds should be converted to single-patient rooms based on feedback from board members and patients.

“We listened to our community,” Peterson said.

Peterson said that, while many patients prefer a private setting, there are those who get lonely and prefer a roommate’s company. Others like the multibed rooms because they can serve as accommodations for visiting family members.

Sebasticook’s solution is a “supersuite,” two private rooms which can be opened up into a single, larger room. Even when the room holds two patients, they will each have a private bathroom, Peterson said.

Twenty of the hospital’s 25 beds will be supersuites, while five will be private rooms.

Better care also more profitable

While there are upfront costs associated with the switch, Person said conservative estimates produced by Stroudwater Associates, a Portland-based health care consulting firm, demonstrate that it will pay for itself, even without taking reduced numbers of infections into account.

Right now, even with 25 beds, there are times when the hospital can hold no more than 14 patients, who need to be kept separated because of infection concerns or gender mismatches.

“Eliminating a great amount of that constriction, we’re estimating only a modest increase in our daily average census, but that’s enough to pay for the plan,” he said.

This will allow the hospital to offer the new, modern rooms at the same price as the existing ones, he said.

The renovation project, which also includes clinical space, a central utility plant, a new helicopter entrance, and updated airflow systems, is relying on community support to generate a portion of the $9.5 million project cost.

Peterson said that in early spring he plans to formally announce a public campaign to raise $2 million through individual donations. Contributions are currently being accepted on the hospital’s website.

“We can use the help,” Peterson said. “We are hoping to build a legacy for future generations.”

The addition, which was begun in June, should be weatherproof by the time winter comes, with a goal of being fully operational by June 2013.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287

[email protected]