Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Infection prevention knowledge: Permutations on "known" and "unknown" are everywhere, and we are increasingly aware of how widely they can be disseminated in healthcare environments. Researchers have found, for example, that
  • Well-child visits are a risk factor for subsequent influenza-like illness visits. Infections are thought to spread in waiting and exam rooms.
  • Hospital water taps can be contaminated with bacteria including Legionella spp., Acinetobacter spp. and other Gram-negatives. 

The list could go on and on. We know that many pathogens can persist on surfaces for a considerable time, and while it's not clear the extent to which contaminated surfaces play a role in HAI in general, there is reason to believe they are important in many infections. The unfortunate reality is that patients suffer nosocomial infection; contaminated surfaces can only add to the risk of infection.

I never thought I'd invoke Donald Rumsfeld in a discussion of infection control, but he once described a useful construct for thinking about infection prevention (among other things). He's quoted as saying
. . . there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say, there are things that we now know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.
If we add another, obvious, category -- things we don't know that we know -- then a 2x2 table can be written for types of knowledge. Done for infection prevention and control, it might look like the table below.

It would be interesting to organize what we know and don't know into such a table. That's a big thing to do; it requires assessing what specific practices are truly evidence-based ("known knowns", like have been described for central line infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia), identifying best practices that aren't necessarily well studied ("unknown knowns"), and enumerating gaps in our knowledge ("known unknowns", such as the role of contaminated surfaces in HAI). Of course, we can never identify the things we don't realize that we don't know (the "unknown unknowns"), but the hope would be to ultimately understand the other three quadrants well enough so that we are sure that the unknown unknowns aren't important. Obviously, that's hard to do.  

It seems to me that seriously trying to fill in the quadrants is an important step towards a complete theoretical picture of infection. Probably the "known knowns" quadrant is smaller than we would hope, and the "known unknowns" quadrant is significant. I wonder how large the "unknown knows" category -- the things we don't realize we know -- is?

(image source: the E. coli micrograph, Wikipedia; the 2x2 table, David Hartley)

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