Background: Assessments of infectious disease spread in hospitals seldom account for interfacility patient sharing. This is particularly important for pathogens with prolonged incubation periods or carrier states.
Methods: We quantified patient sharing among all 32 hospitals in Orange County (OC), California, using hospital discharge data. Same-day transfers between hospitals were considered "direct" transfers, and events in which patients were shared between hospitals after an intervening stay at home or elsewhere were considered "indirect" patient-sharing events. We assessed the frequency of readmissions to another OC hospital within various time points from discharge and examined interhospital sharing of patients with Clostridium difficile infection.
Results: In 2005, OC hospitals had 319,918 admissions. Twenty-nine percent of patients were admitted at least twice, with a median interval between discharge and readmission of 53 days. Of the patients with 2 or more admissions, 75% were admitted to more than 1 hospital. Ninety-four percent of interhospital patient sharing occurred indirectly. When we used 10 shared patients as a measure of potential interhospital exposure, 6 (19%) of 32 hospitals "exposed" more than 50% of all OC hospitals within 6 months, and 17 (53%) exposed more than 50% within 12 months. Hospitals shared 1 or more patient with a median of 28 other hospitals. When we evaluated patients with C. difficile infection, 25% were readmitted within 12 weeks; 41% were readmitted to different hospitals, and less than 30% of these readmissions were direct transfers.
Conclusions: In a large metropolitan county, interhospital patient sharing was a potential avenue for transmission of infectious agents. Indirect sharing with an intervening stay at home or elsewhere composed the bulk of potential exposures and occurred unbeknownst to hospitals.