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What Can Be Done to Reduce Hospital Infections

Hospitals and surgical care centers are having difficulty controlling deadly infections contracted within their facilities.  As previously cited, 1 in 10 people hospitalized are affected and a total of 100,000 of these die as a result.  But in one sense, we are all affected because the cost of infections, estimated at $30 billion a year raises the cost of health care and, therefore, health insurance as well.  What are health facilities  doing about it?  What can we as individuals do to protect ourselves?

In a recent survey of health care workers,  40% reported their health care facility was actively involved in curbing infection and 71% said a formal written policy had been issued on the subject.  Efforts like these, however, haven’t stemmed the rising rate of infections.

However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine  proved that infections can be controlled.  Michigan hospitals dramatically lowered the rates of the most common type, blood stream infections from the use of catheters, by 66%.  This was done by following a simple five-step checklist involving:

1.) washing hands
2.) cleaning the patients skin with a disinfectant
3.) wearing a cap and gown and using a surgical drape during the procedures
4.) inserting catheters through parts of the body other than the groin, when possible
5.) limiting the use of catheters.

But now, 3 years later, despite the early success, the use of the checklist is limited.

In a recent interview, Dr. Peter Pronovost, the Johns Hopkins intensive-care specialist and patient-safety expert who led the study, was asked about the results.  He reported that the study proved conclusively that most infections were preventable using simple inexpensive measures.  Sustaining that level of success after the end of the study was difficult, he said, because hospital culture makes it difficult to question or direct doctors and people in authority.  Dr. Pronovost, suggested that, in the end, the best ‘cure’ for infections might be publicizing every hospital’s infection rate, forcing facilities to deal with the challenge.

That’s good news for Californians.  Recent laws are now requiring hospitals to report infection rates caused by catheters.  The results will be made public in early 2011. But, in the meantime, you may be the best defense against infections if you or a family member end up in the hospital.  Here’s the patients’ version of the infection prevention checklist:

  • ·    Ask visitors as well as hospital staff to clean their hands before touching you.  This is the single most important step to take.  Also remember that unless the wearer washed his hands first, gloves pulled on with unclean hands will be just as contaminated.
  • ·    Keep your own hands as clean as possible and keep them away from your mouth.  Don’t put food or utensils on furniture or bed coverings.
  • ·    Avoid having a urinary tract catheter if possible
  • ·    Shower or bathe daily with chlorhexidine soap 3 -5 days before surgery
  • ·    Stop smoking, at least temporarily, if you can.  Smokers are three times more likely to develop an infection as non-smokers.
  • ·    Ensure that you receive an antibiotic one hour before surgery.

In the end, taking responsibility for our own safety is the best defense.  If everyone followed these precautions, it would put pressure on our harried health care providers to modify the way they administer their services and encourage  hospital administrators to alter culture that stands in the way of change. Lives would be saved and one factor in rising health care cost would be addressed.

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