January 25, 2022

Incidental COVID-19 hospital cases are hard to track

Editor's Note

Incidental COVID-19—when patients are admitted to the hospital for something other than COVID-19 but test positive for the virus during their stay—is a reality for most, if not all, hospitals. However, a Becker’s study finds that the frequency of incidental COVID-19 cases is particularly challenging for hospital staff to get a grasp on.

The inherent challenge lies in one important distinction: were patients who tested positive admitted because COVID-19 was their “primary condition,” or because they tested positive unrelated to their hospital stay?

Hospitals having difficulty clearly tracking COVID-19 infections as related to their hospital admissions points to long-standing issues that have plagued hospital operations. Among the elements identified in the study to have contributed to this data tracking challenge are electronic health record systems (EHR) and hospital staff shortages.

Hospital administrations have long struggled with implementing EHR systems that will perform to certain standards. In this case, some hospitals find that their EHR systems cannot determine whether a patient’s COVID-19 diagnosis is incidental or primary. Some suggest such tracking must be manually done at this time, which brings up the serious issue of another responsibility being dropped on hospital staff already stretched thin and personnel numbers coming up short against the current demand.

A third element identified by Becker’s lies with COVID-19 testing and reporting practices themselves—a primary concern is the lack of a cohesive system among hospitals.

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