Dr. Alan Forster (Ottawa Hospital)

Hospitalized patients who become infected with C. difficile need to stay in hospital for an average of six days longer than those free of the superbug, a new study suggests.

C. difficile is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea and other serious intestinal conditions.

Studies suggest it is the most common cause of infectious diarrhea in hospital, and it is estimated that 10 per cent of patients who become infected in hospital will die.

In Monday's issue of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, Dr. Alan Forster of the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute analyzed data on admissions to the hospital between 2002 and 2009.

A total of 1,393 patients acquired C. difficile in hospital during this time, and these patients spent 34 days in hospital compared with eight days for patients who did not have C. difficile.

About half of the patients were female and the average age was 63. Two-thirds of the patients had at least one chronic disease, the researchers said.

The proportion of patients who died and who did not have C. difficile was 5.8 per cent compared with 22 .1 per cent of the patients who had C. difficile.

The authors acknowledged that the main drawback of the study was that the ability to identify the presence and timing of C. diff infections isn't perfect.

Prudent antibiotic use

They concluded the impact of hospital-acquired C. diff infections on length of stay is less than previous estimates but "remains large."

Forster's team called for future studies to measure the impact of the infections on patients along with a cost analysis.

In a journal commentary accompanying the study, Dr. David Enoch, Peterborough and Stamford Hospitals, United Kingdom and Dr. Sani Aliyu of the U.K.'s Health Protection Agency stressed that prevention and strict control measures such as prudent prescribing of antibiotics, correct hand hygiene and use of personal protective equipment by hospital staff are important for controlling the spread of the disease.

"Such measures appear to have reduced the rates of infection in the U.K., possibly because of increased management and clinical responsibility," they concluded.

The study was funded by the Ottawa Hospital and the Canadian Patient Safety Institute.