Fighting Pneumonia With a Toothbrush: New Program Is Yielding Results

A woman smiling with a toothbrush in front of her mouth.

A first-of-its-kind CVS Health initiative to combat hospital-acquired pneumonia through better oral health is improving outcomes and receiving rave reviews from patients. To date, the Rush to Brush program has reached more than 8,000 Aetna members scheduled for one of 23 types of inpatient surgery with kits containing high-quality oral care products, education and a personalized ‘get well’ card.
The effort is designed to help reduce the incidence of hospital-acquired pneumonia, one of the most common and life-threatening infections hospitalized patients can contract.

“We want to shift the paradigm around oral health in hospitals. It’s actually more important to take care of your teeth and mouth when you go in for surgery, not less,” said Mary Lee Conicella, DMD, Chief Dental Officer for Aetna.

Dr. Conicella noted that oral care is critically important in the post-operative setting because the mouth is filled with bacteria. One study found colonization by disease-causing bacteria — especially those linked to pneumonia — in 90 percent of patients within 72 hours of being admitted to the hospital. Those bacteria don’t just stay in the mouth, however; they are often inadvertently inhaled into the lungs.

Brushing one’s teeth greatly reduces the population of bacteria in the mouth, according to nurse-researcher Dian Baker, Ph.D., professor at California State University, Sacramento.  “When patients brush their teeth, they’re basically taking their bacterial count from hundreds of millions down to just a few, and this greatly reduces their risk of pneumonia.”

Dr. Baker’s research inspired the Rush to Brush program, which is paying dividends in terms of clinical results, member satisfaction and reduced health care costs. To date, there has been about a 30 percent decrease in the incidence of pneumonia among members who received the Rush to Brush kit.Data based on early observations of pneumonia claims within 90 days of procedure for ~1,200 patients Additionally, estimates are that the program will yield approximately $75M in annual avoidable medical costs across Aetna’s commercial and Medicare business.

A note from a patient who took part in the Rush to Brush program.
A note from a patient who took part in the Rush to Brush program.

And members love it: Seventy percent took the kit with them to the hospital, and 95 percent have expressed positive feelings about the program and about Aetna. Members who received the kit have been effusive, saying the initiative “shows that Aetna is caring and considerate” and that “the fact that Aetna took a vested interested in my recovery meant so much.” One member noted that the kit “took the guess work out. All items were needed, all items were used — very important and useful.”

In addition to collaborating with Dr. Baker, Aetna worked with Johnson & Johnson and Colgate-Palmolive to outfit the kits with Colgate Total toothpaste, a high-quality toothbrush, Listerine Zero mouthwash and tips on good oral health.

The program illustrates unique ability of CVS Health and Aetna to use clinical and member data insights to unlock members’ health care needs, according to Daniel Knecht, M.D., Vice President of Health Strategy and Innovation for CVS Health. “Using those insights, we are then able to bring together the resources our members need on their road to recovery,” he added.

For more information about CVS Health’s efforts to improve care across the nation, visit our News & Insights page and the CVS Health Impact Dashboard. To stay informed about the latest updates and innovations from CVS Health, register for content alerts and our Leaders in Care newsletter.