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. Launched earlier this year, the Rush to Brush program has supported more than 10,000 Aetna members undergoing surgery with kits containing high-quality oral care products, education and a personalized ‘get well soon’ card.

“The program has allowed us to offer members a simple health care solution right at their fingertips,” said Daniel Knecht, M.D., Vice President of Health Strategy and Innovation for CVS Health. “It also shows the power of bringing key industry stakeholders together to solve a problem unearthed by member data.” 

Leveraging the information contained within surgery pre-certifications, the kits arrive in-home to members approximately one week before their scheduled hospital admission. The effort is designed to help reduce the incidence of pneumonia, the number one hospital-acquired infection and one of the most life-threatening illnesses patients can contract. 

Oral care is critically important in the post-operative setting because the mouth is filled with bacteria. “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, Aetna’s Chief Dental Officer. One study found disease-causing bacteria—especially those linked to pneumonia—present 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. Early results demonstrate decreases in the incidence of pneumonia among members who received the Rush to Brush kit when compared to those who did not.Data based on early observations of pneumonia claims within 90 days of procedure, not yet statistically significant. Additionally, estimates project that the program will yield substantial savings in 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 toward the program and 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 guesswork out. All items were needed, all items were used – this was better than flowers!”

In addition to collaborating with Dr. Baker, Aetna worked with plan sponsor Johnson & Johnson as well as Colgate-Palmolive and IntelliDent to outfit the kits with Colgate Total toothpaste, a soft-bristled toothbrush, Listerine Zero mouthwash, disposable toothbrush shields and tips on good oral health.

The program illustrates CVS Health’s and Aetna’s unique ability to use clinical and member data insights to unlock members’ health care needs, allowing us to bring together the resources to meet our members on their road to recovery and better health.

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.