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Superbugs can kill patients but are not more expensive to treat

Surprise: Drug-resistant staph infections cost the same or slightly less to treat than non-resistant infections, study shows.

Jeff Lagasse, Associate Editor

Computer artwork of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. Credit: Getty ImagesComputer artwork of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) bacteria. Credit: Getty Images

Superbugs have managed to scare patients, healthcare executives and clinicians alike. They're often difficult to diagnose and can be deadly but, it turns out, they don't cost more to treat than non-resistant infections. 

Why that matters to hospitals: Quantifying the difference in costs and outcomes between patients infected with resistant and susceptible organisms is important for prioritizing investments in antimicrobial drugs, diagnostics and clinical operations

A new national analysis, in fact, shows that drug-resistant staph infections continue to be deadlier than those that are not resistant and treatable with traditional antibiotics, but treatment costs surprisingly are the same or slightly less.

Studies show that about one in three people carries staph in their nose, usually without any illness, and about two in 100 people carry MRSA, one of the so-called superbug infections that are resistant to traditional antibiotics such as methicillin and penicillin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lower costs for treating drug-resistant infections was a surprise to researchers, as this contradicts previous predictions and studies indicating expenses for drug-resistant infections would be greater.

Looking across four years of data, researchers found treatment costs for drug-resistant staph infections -- MRSA-related pneumonia -- were about $38,500 compared with more than $40,700 for MSSA-related pneumonia (methicillin-sensitive Staphylococcus aureus) that are not resistant to certain antibiotics.

Treatments costs for non-pneumonia-related hospitalizations related to staph infections were $15,578 for MSSA-related infections compared with $14,792 for MRSA-related infections. Similar patterns were observed from 2010 to 2013.

Cost differences between MSSA- and MRSA-related pneumonia hospitalizations rose from 25.8 percent in 2010 to 31 percent in 2014.

Reasons for the lower cost include price differences in drugs used to treat the varying types of infections, the fact that MSSA infections treated in the data were more severe, or perhaps less-invasive MSSA infections are not be diagnosed or coded correctly, leaving only costlier MSSA infections in the record. Alternatively, this difference may relate to the fact that care providers failed to change from antibiotics used for MRSA to more appropriate antibiotics in a timely fashion, the authors said. 

Here's the long-term takeaway: Adjusting for differences in underlying patient severity may help mitigate these issues and provide a better understanding of the economic impact of antibiotic resistance, the researchers said.

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