Some two million people acquire bacterial infections in U.S. hospitals each year, and 90,000 of those patients die as a result. Although antibiotics generally kill or inhibit the growth of susceptible bacteria, they also allow some bugs to survive and become resistant to the drugs. The current epidemic of MRSA -- a form of drug-resistant staph found in hospitals and places such as school locker rooms -- is just one example of the growing number of bacteria that have developed resistance to common drugs.
Now, two of the leading hospital purchasing groups are mounting new campaigns to reduce the use of antibiotics. VHA Inc., an alliance of more than 1,400 nonprofit hospitals, has launched a "Bugs and Drugs" program to help member institutions identify and manage resistance to antibiotics. Premier Inc., which represents more than 2,000 hospitals, is urging members to adopt antimicrobial stewardship programs and offering an electronic data-tracking system to help monitor the use of certain drugs.
At the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics in Madison, Sarah Bland, senior clinical pharmacist, calls herself the "antibiotic police." Working with an infectious-disease specialist, she uses Premier's software program, called SafetySurveillor, to track the antibiotics prescribed in the 450-bed hospital. The aim is to get doctors to use the narrowest-spectrum antibiotic possible -- a drug that is designed to attack only the bacteria causing a specific infection.