Sewage leaks, high infection rates plague MedStar Washington Hospital Center, newspaper report finds

It’s nationally ranked by one organization as a high performer, but a hospital in the District of Columbia is under investigation for serious safety issues, according to a USA Today report.

Sewage leaking down the walls and floor of the operating room is just one of the many problems at MedStar Washington Hospital Center, clinical staff told the publication. The hospital is nationally ranked by U.S. News & World Report for one specialty and as a high performer in six procedures and conditions, but only receives two stars from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services due to its high infection rates and earned a D from the Leapfrog Group.

Considered the go-to hospital for trauma care in the area, the healthcare organization has suffered from numerous safety issues, USA Today found. The D.C. health department is currently investigating the sewage leaks, an ongoing problem for the last two years. The report also revealed that flies often can be found in operating rooms, and four foreign objects were left inside patients in a 12-month period that ended in February.

MedStar, however, said in a statement sent to FierceHealthcare that the USA Today piece is riddled with inaccuracies and unfounded conclusions.

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The newspaper said it interviewed more than 20 current and former hospital employees, government officials and health experts as well as reviewed internal documents. The problems described by the employees and the documents indicate a “hospital that is out of control," Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports' Safe Patient Project, told the publication.

The hospital also has faced severe budget cuts due to a $16 million shortfall, and 400 nurses left the hospital last year—a 22% turnover rate, according to the report. The organization also has a higher than average rate for Clostridium difficile. The high nurse turnover rate and high rates of infection and complications are related, according to one patient safety expert interviewed by the publication.

"Our data suggests that patients are more likely to be harmed or die unnecessarily from an infection at this hospital than most other hospitals in the country," Leapfrog CEO Leah Binder told the publication.

MedStar Washington Hospital Center sent a lengthy statement to FierceHealthcare in response to the USA Today allegations. Its patients, the statement said, were never put at risk due to recent leaks in the operating room area.

"We are committed to the highest quality, safest care for every patient who comes through our doors and have an intensive program in place to quickly identify and correct problems," the hospital said.

Furthermore, the hospital has addressed recent leaks and in the past six months has cleaned, sterilized and had the areas inspected by an outside industrial hygienist to ensure that they were safe for patient care. The statement also said it has made efforts to reduce hospital-acquired conditions. Its CLABSI rates, for example, are down 30% since 2015, according to the hospital.

The hospital also is financially strong and resilient. The statement said it has operated in the black for the past six years, and uses its slim operating margin to reinvest in people and facilities and recruit and retain the best clinical staff.

The hospital also disputes the nurse turnover rate listed in the newspaper report. It said the rate is at 14%, lower than last year and comparable to other academic medical centers nationwide. 

In addition, it said the D.C. facility doesn't participate in the Leapfrog survey cited in the article because of concerns with Leapfrog’s methodology. Leapfrog does not risk-adjust its data based on the complexity of care provided.

"Further, the article inappropriately applied this Leapfrog data to defame our Level I Trauma Center.  In fact, when caring for patients with penetrating injuries, our MedSTAR Trauma program performs in the top decile of U.S. trauma centers, according to data from the American College of Surgeons Trauma Quality Improvement Program," the statement said.

In its concluding statement, the hospital said: "throughout our 60-year history, we have been committed to continuous improvement through education and research, and we regularly seek third-party input on the quality of our care. We participate in exhaustive reviews to earn status as a Level I Trauma Center (American College of Surgeons), the region’s designated Burn Center (American Burn Association), and a Certified Comprehensive Stroke Center (The Joint Commission/American Heart Association), to name just a few. We will never waiver from this vitally important commitment to our patients, our city and the region."