Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania have found that targeted, automated alerts in electronic health records significantly reduce urinary tract infections in hospital patients with urinary catheters.

In addition, researchers conclude that when the design of the alert is simplified, the rate of improvement dramatically increases.

The alerts help physicians decide whether their patients need urinary catheters in the first place and then alert them to reassess the need for catheters that have not been removed within a recommended time period. The electronic alert, developed by medical researchers and technology experts at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, is the subject of a study published in the September 2014 issue of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

In the first phase of the study, 2 percent of urinary catheters were removed after an initial “off-the-shelf” electronic alert was triggered (the stock alert was part of the standard software package for the electronic health record). Hoping to improve on this result in a second phase of the study, Penn experts developed and used a simplified alert based on national guidelines for removing urinary catheters they had previously published with the CDC. Following introduction of the simplified alert, the proportion of catheter removals increased more than seven-fold to 15 percent.

The study also found that catheter associated urinary tract infections decreased from an initial rate of .84 per 1,000 patient days to .70 per 1,000 patient-days following implementation of the first alert and .50 per 1,000 patient days following implementation of the simplified alert. Among other improvements, the simplified alert required two mouse clicks to submit a remove-urinary-catheter order compared to seven mouse clicks required by the original alert.

The study was conducted among 222,475 inpatient admissions in the three hospitals of the University of Pennsylvania Health System between March 2009 and May 2012. In patients’ EHRs, physicians were prompted to specify the reason (among 10 options) for inserting a urinary catheter. On the basis of the reason selected, they were subsequently alerted to reassess the need for the catheter if it had not been removed within the recommended time period based on the reason chosen.

“Our study has two crucial, applicable findings,” said lead author Charles Baillie, M.D., an internal medicine specialist and fellow in the Center for Clinical Epidemiology and Biostatistics at Penn Medicine. “First, electronic alerts do result in fewer catheter-associated urinary tract infections. Second, the design of the alerts is very important. By making the alert quicker and easier to use, we saw a dramatic increase in the number of catheters removed in patients who no longer needed them. Fewer catheters means fewer infections, fewer days in the hospital, and even, fewer deaths. Not to mention the dollars saved by the health system in general.”

The study is available here.

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