Can hospitals make you sick? Sadly, yes. We would all like to think that hospitals are sterile places that couldn’t possibly make us sicker. Unfortunately, the opposite can be true. Although there are many ways patients can get worse while in the hospital, this post focuses on preventable hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) – also referred to as healthcare-associated infections. Unfortunately, HAIs are alarmingly common and dangerous.
The what and where of HAIs.
Patients develop HAIs while receiving treatment for medical or surgical conditions. These infections occur in all types of care facilities, including hospitals, surgical centers, ambulatory clinics, and long-term care facilities such as nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities.
How common are these infections?
According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), HAIs account for an estimated 1.7 million infections and 99,000 deaths each year in US hospitals. Of these infections:
- 32% are urinary tract infections
- 22% are surgical site infections
- 15% re pneumonia (lung infections)
- 14% are bloodstream infections
Two of the worst superbugs, C diff. and MRSA, are common and deadly.
What are the risk factors?
Any patient in the hospital can develop an HAI. But, some patients are more at risk than others. Patients with a greater risk include:
- Young children.
- People with compromised immune systems.
Additionally, there are other factors that increase the risk of developing an HAI:
- Long hospital stays.
- Catheters inserted into the patient’s bladder.
- Failure of healthcare workers to wash their hands.
- Overuse of antibiotics.
Are hospitals working to control these infections?
Yes! Although some are doing better jobs than others.
Consumer Reports’ special report, How Your Hospital Can Make You Sick, evaluates how well 3,000 U.S. hospitals are controlling C diff. and MRSA infections. The results are staggering – only 6% of the 3,000 hospitals scored well for controlling these two superbugs.
Why does this problem persist?
According to the Consumer Reports article, there are two prime factors:
- Patients with very serious infections are treated close to other patients, by the same employees using the same equipment.
- There is widespread use of antibiotics, often inappropriately, which encourages growth of these superbugs that are immune to antibiotics and that kill off a patient’s protective bacteria.
How do hospitals prevent infections?
- Use antibiotics wisely by making sure patients get the right drug, at the right time, and at the right dose.
- Monitor the use of broad-spectrum antibiotics.
- Keep surfaces clean or replace items between patients. C diff. and MRSA can live on surfaces for days and can be transferred back and forth between people and equipment and other surfaces.
- Encourage hand hygiene through hospital wide programs.
For information on what else hospitals can do to reduce infections, read the Consumer Reports article.
What can you do to reduce your risk of these serious infections?
Before you go to the hospital:
Evaluate hospitals in your area to determine how well they control infections and other safety hazards. You can find information on many websites that provide information on safety measures in Zaggo’s Resource Center. Although take the information provided with a grain of salt – it’s unclear how accurate some of the ratings systems are.
- Ask about MRSA testing – which staff can easily test with a nasal swab.
- Insist on room cleanliness – if your room looks dirty, ask for a cleaning.
- Bring bleach-based wipes so you can clean the bed rails, TV remote, door knobs, etc. Do this regularly.
- Frequently wash the patient’s hands and insist that all visitors wash their hands as well.
- When/if a doctor prescribes antibiotics, ask your doctor if they are needed and appropriate.
- If heartburn drugs are prescribed, ask your doctor if they are needed since they reduce stomach acid and increase the risk of C diff. If you must take them, ask for the lowest dose possible.
- Everyday, ask staff if they can remove catheters, ventilators and any other tubes. The longer these devices are in place, the higher the risk of infection.
- If the doctor needs a body part shaved, ask the staff to use an electric hair remover. Razors can nick the skin, providing an opening for an infection.
When you, or a family member, gets home from the hospital, consider these suggestions:
- Assume there is a chance the patient was exposed.
- Watch for warning signs, including “fever, diarrhea, worsening pain, or an incision site the becomes warm, red, and swollen”.
- Take extra precautions by practicing good hygiene:
- Clean frequently touched surfaces with a solution you can make with 1 part bleach to 10 parts water.
- If possible, reserve a bathroom specifically for the use of the patient.
- Don’t share toiletries or towels. Use paper towels instead of cloth hand towels.
For more information on hospital infections and germs, read these blog posts:
- How Can Patients Protect Themselves from Hospital Infections?
- Germs in Hospitals and Doctor Offices – Watch Out!
- Why is Hand Washing in Healthcare So Important? What You Need to Do to Stay Safe.
- Why is Sepsis so Dangerous?
- Protect Yourself from Superbugs.
- Is C. Diff Dangerous for Patients?
- What’s Your Hospital’s Safety Record? Is Your Hospital Safe?
- Is Your Hospital Safe? Are Programs in Place to Avoid Dangerous “Never Events”?