The most expansive study to date of transmission of the AIDS virus to patients uncovered no proof that they were infected by the healthcare workers who treated them.
The study of more than 22,000 patients helps alleviate hospitals' worries that they may have to spend thousands of dollars to test their workers for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The study, released last week by researchers at the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, included investigations of 64 HIV-infected healthcare workers that were reported to the CDC before Jan. 1 of this year.
"This summary is consistent and backs up previous assessments that (the risk of) transmission is very small," said Gina Pugliese, director of infection control and environmental safety for the American Hospital Association.
Providers have been on guard since 1992, when a Florida dentist was believed to have infected six of his patients. Medical experts have since discredited reports blaming the dentist in that case. However, that didn't stop other health departments and hospitals from investigating healthcare workers or notifying patients.
"We do not recommend routine testing of healthcare workers to prevent transmission to patients," Pugliese said. "But surgeons and other healthcare workers should practice universal precautions (against) transmission from workers to patients and patients to workers."
To test all healthcare workers "would require huge financial resources," Pugliese said. For example, CDC researchers said a one-time national screening program would likely find 137 HIV-infected surgeons and cost $8.1 million.
"Mandatory screening is poor public policy," said study leader Douglas Owens, M.D., who is also an assistant professor of health research and policy at Stanford University Medical School. For every year of life that mandatory screening saved, it would cost $458,000, researchers said.
By comparison, common screenings for illnesses such as breast cancer or high blood pressure usually cost between $10,000 and $100,000 per year of life saved, Owens added.