Colorectal SSIs Plummet After Targeted Improvement Project

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Tailor Your Approach to Quality Improvement

This is an innovative and exciting initiative that highlights our increasing sophistication about translating new knowledge and evidence into practice. In order to improve something, you must first document that there is a problem, establish a baseline, and set a goal.

The American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program and similar initiatives allow for such a structured and standardized approach for data collection and reporting. Once the problem is characterized, interventions must be designed and tested in a variety of settings to determine under what conditions they are or are not effective.

No single intervention will be effective for a multifactorial problem like surgical site infections. In order to scale up and broadly disseminate such interventions, it is necessary to assess the facilitators and barriers to change that exist in a given environment to determine which interventions have the highest likelihood of success. The program described in this article, which allows such a tailored approach to quality improvement, potentially can have a profound impact on the quality and safety of the care that we provide.

Dr. Caprice C. Greenberg is an ACS Fellow, associate professor of surgery, and director of the Wisconsin Surgical Outcomes Research at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.


Colorectal surgical site infections dropped by an average of 32% among hospitals that participated in a project designed to reduce facility-specific infection risk factors.

The project – co-sponsored by the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare and the American College of Surgeons – will result in a user-friendly online tool that can examine any hospital’s infections data and recommend detailed, site-specific interventions.

Dr. Shirin Towfigh

The commission’s Targeted Solutions Tool should be available by the middle of 2013.

"The hospitals we engaged have mastered these sophisticated change tools, and now we need to make sure this learning can be spread to others," Dr. Mark Chassin said during a press briefing. "[The new tool] will be a very easy-to-follow approach that applies all the lessons we learned – showing how to measure infection rates, figure out which contributing factors are present in their institution, and guiding them through implementations proven to address these factors."

The commission chose to tackle colorectal surgical site infections (SSIs) because they are common, dangerous, and expensive, said Dr. Chassin, president of the group. Unfortunately, risk factors don’t respond to a "one size fits all" prevention protocol. "These factors are highly variable across hospitals, suggesting that there are opportunities to improve performance."

The 2-year pilot project included seven hospitals of varying size and community demographics. The facilities tracked their colorectal SSI patterns using the American College of Surgeons National Surgical Quality Improvement Program. Each hospital then developed interventions targeted at their individual modifiable risk factors, implemented the changes, and recorded their results.

Overall, the protocol reduced colorectal SSIs by 32% – from an average of 16% to 11%. Superficial skin SSIs fell by an average of 45% over the entire study group.

The protocol improved other outcomes as well, Dr. Chassin said. The average length of stay for a colorectal surgery patient with a wound infection decreased from 15 to 13 days. Across the group, the changes were associated with a savings of almost $4 million.

The hospitals collectively identified 34 factors that greatly increased the risk of such infections. During the briefing, Dr. Jenna Lovely, the surgical pharmacotherapy manager at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., shared some of their results (J. Am. Coll. Surg. 2011;213:83-92; 2012 [doi:10.1016/j.jamcollsurg.2012.09.009]).

Before implementation of the program, the colorectal SSI rate at Mayo was 10%. With a goal of reducing that number by at least 50%, the team examined risk factors in the preoperative, intraoperative, postoperative, and posthospitalization periods and made some changes, Dr. Lovely said.

Preoperatively, every patient now takes a shower with soap or with a chlorhexidine-based cleanser both the night before and the day of surgery.

Intraoperatively, the site is prepped with an antimicrobial cleansing agent, and the correct antibiotic is administered at 1 hour before the incision is made. If the surgery lasts more than 4 hours, a second dose of the same antibiotic is administered; cefazolin is given 24 hours after closing.

At fascia closing, the surgeon dons a complete change of gown, mask, and gloves. Closing is performed with the use of an entirely new set of instruments.

Postoperatively, everyone who comes in contact with the wound – including staff, the patient, and visitors – practices good hand hygiene. Reminder notes and hand cleanser are located prominently in rooms and all around the unit. Nurses are empowered to change dressings as needed. Wound probing occurs as needed to help expel any contaminated fluids.

Patients are discharged with infection control education and a bottle of chlorhexidine cleanser.

"These changes are embedded in the environment across the continuum of care. It’s part of the surgical unit’s culture, and this makes it easier to do the right thing. The changes also allow the surgeon to focus on doing what he does best – providing a timely and efficient surgery with the best possible outcome," Dr. Lovely said.

Implementation of these changes led to a reduction in SSI rate from 10% to 4%, and that rate has maintained this rate for 18 months.

Dr. Shirin Towfigh, a surgeon at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said her unit experienced a similar improvement.

The project included 46 surgeons and all of the unit staff. Because the team didn’t want to dictate surgical technique, she said, their goal "was to come up with processes that would improve results independent of a surgeon’s practice. We wanted the changes to be effective, but also easy for surgeons to implement in their own practice."

By the end of the study period, the unit’s colorectal SSI rate had decreased by 50%. Since the project closed 6 months ago, that has further improved, with a total decrease of 65%.


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