Cases of Deadly ‘Superbugs’ on the Rise in US

By Kim Smiley

A new antibiotic resistant strain of bacteria is causing deaths and raising flags in US healthcare facilities. The bacteria is called Carbapenem-Resistant Enterobacteriaceae, often shortened to CRE, and is named for its ability to resist carbapenem antibiotics, the last resort treatment for antibiotic resistant bacteria. The fatality rate for those infected may be as high as 50 percent. In 2012, 4 percent of hospitals reported cases of CRE, up from about 1 percent a decade ago. The situation at long-term care hospitals is significantly worse, with 18 percent reporting cases last year.

The issue of CRE can be analyzed by building a Cause Map, a visual method for performing a root cause analysis. The first step is to create an Outline that documents all the background information for an issue. How the problem impacts the overall organization goals is also listed on the bottom of the Outline. In this example, the safety goal is obviously impacted since there have been patient deaths. After the Outline is completed, the second step is to build the Cause Map. The Cause Map is built by asking “why” questions to determine what causes contributed to the issue and then arranging the causes visually to show cause-and-effect relationships. Why have there been patient deaths?  This has occurred because they were infected with CRE and CRE infections are dangerous.

People are being exposed to CRE primarily in healthcare settings. CRE is being passed between patients within the same facility and between healthcare facilities as infected patients are transferred to different healthcare settings. Exposure is occurring between patients because infected patients may not be identified or adequately isolated. Many healthcare facilities do not have the capability to test for CRE and it’s also difficult to identify who should be tested since some patients who carry the bacteria are not symptomatic. CRE also tends to infect individuals who have other health issues and weakened immune systems. Treatment of the other issues may involve invasive medical devices, such as catheters, that can provide a pathway for infection into the body.

CRE infections are dangerous because they have a high rate of fatality, up to 50 percent according to the CDC, and they are difficult to treat. CRE are resistant to virtually all antibiotics. This strain of bacteria is also particularly worrying because they can transfer their resistance to other bacteria within their family, compounding the problem. Antibiotic resistant bacteria have developed over the years because of the wide use of antibiotics. Each time antibiotics are used, bacteria have a chance to evolve and they have over the years.

The final step in the Cause Mapping process is to find solutions that would reduce the risk of the problem in the future. In this example, there isn’t an easy solution. There are no promising new antibiotics in development at this time that would likely be able to treat CRE infections so the best hope is to prevent the bacteria from spreading. The CDC has recommended steps such as identifying and isolating infected patients.

This example also show important it is to track the effectiveness of solutions after they are implemented because there can be unintended consequences that show up later on. Antibiotics have saved thousands of lives, but they are becoming less effective as bacteria develop resistance to them. New solutions will be needed to prevent or fight these types of infections in the future. Cause Mapping is a useful tool to document evolving issues because they can easily be adjusted and added to as new information is available.

To view a high level Cause Map, click on “Download PDF” above.