For dialysis patients, the tubes linking them to a large square machine are a literal lifeline.
The machines clean their blood because their kidneys are either so damaged or failing so badly, their bodies can no longer do the job for them.
But a News4 I-Team ProPublica investigation has found where you go to get this treatment can be a decision between life or death.
“There are many units that are very close to each other, operated to slightly different standards,” says Dr. Matthew Weir.
Dr. Weir is the Director of the Nephrology Division at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, where he leads a team studying dialysis care.
He says, “I think the challenge obviously is to have the patient grill the physician and say, ‘Hey, which one would I be better suited?’"
For years, the federal government has kept statistics on infection rates, unexpected emergency room visits and how often people die while receiving dialysis.
But you’ve probably never seen them until now.
The News4 I-Team found, out of more than 160 dialysis facilities in the greater Washington area, 16 percent did “worse than expected” by the federal government when it came to keeping people alive last year.
One-third had higher than average infection rates.
Dr. Weir says, “Infection is important because you have to consider the dialysis therapy, which in a way is a form of washing your blood clean of impurities, requires us to pump blood out of your body."
But Dr. Weir says when the blood gets pumped in and “your blood gets infected during the course of this process, it can be potentially fatal and you can certainly get very sick.”
But dialysis centers say the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Government records show Advanced Dialysis Center – Potomac in Arlington, Va., had 153 percent more deaths than the federal government’s “expected mortality rate.”
That’s the highest in our area.
Seventy-eight percent of patients died over a three-year period. That’s more than three times the state average.
A local company with four branches in our area (Potomac, Randallstown, Easton, Rockville), all of the Advanced Dialysis Center facilities were labeled with “higher than expected” death rates by the federal government.
The owners say there’s a reason for these high numbers. They tell the I-Team they’re providing care for “the sickest of the sick” – elderly patients from “hospitals” and “nursing homes.”
The company says the federal statistics are “very skewed” because it’s hard to compare nursing home centers with other types of dialysis clinics.
Dr. Weir says this is why it’s critical for patients to talk to their doctors. “What I would say is find a doctor you have faith in who can be honest with you. Who can discuss the relevant numbers and issues of what form of dialysis care they would prefer.”
Because, for dialysis patients and their families, deciding where to go could be the ultimate decision of a lifetime.