Illinois Surgery Centers Slip on Infection Control

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Byline: Carla K. Johnson Associated Press

It may look harmless and even sexy when a surgical mask dangles from the neck of a hunky TV doctor, or his hair peeks out from under his surgical cap. But to Illinois infection control watchdogs, it looks like a pathway for deadly germs.

Exposed hair and dangling masks in sterile operating rooms were among shortcomings they observed in Illinois same-day surgery centers, according to state inspection reports.

The reports, obtained by The Associated Press through the Freedom of Information Act, describe other serious problems seen during the past year by inspectors trying to stop the spread of dangerous bacteria and viruses:

* A Chicago eye surgery center routinely skimped on sterilizing time for surgical instruments, cutting the recommended 10 minutes down to four minutes -- and sometimes -- just three minutes.

* A central Illinois center didn't investigate why one of its surgeons had a high rate of post-operative infections.

* A suburban Chicago center cleaned instruments in a sink that had no hot water.

Of 21 Illinois surgery centers inspected during the past year, 14 -- or two-thirds -- were cited for infection-control problems. All the problems have been corrected, state health officials said.

The lapses at same-day surgery centers were found throughout the state as regulators continue a crackdown prompted by a 2008 hepatitis C outbreak in Las Vegas believed to be caused by unsafe clinic practices.

In Illinois, 36 surgical centers still have not been inspected using a new tougher approach required by federal health officials after the Las Vegas scare.

Surgery centers are a growing segment of the health care system. They perform procedures including cataract surgeries, colonoscopies and foot operations -- often more cheaply than hospitals. Across the nation, the centers annually do more than 6 million procedures and collect $3 billion from Medicare.

Surgery centers face challenges that are different than hospitals. Turnaround times between surgeries are shorter, for example. But the centers are expected to uphold the same infection control standards as in hospitals, said Jan Davidson, a registered nurse and infection control expert at the Denver-based Association of periOperative Registered Nurses, a group that writes recommendations for infection control.

The person in charge of infection control at a surgery center is often a nurse who has other jobs too, Davidson said. In comparison, hospitals typically have one staff member who does nothing else but head the infection control program, she said.

In Illinois, no disease outbreaks have been linked to the centers, but there's no way to tell how many patients, if any, suffered infections because of the problems seen during the unannounced inspections.

The new scrutiny is meant to bring surgery center practices in line with what's enforced at hospitals. …