Hospital-acquired infections kill tens of thousands each year
By Barbara Pierce
Hospital infections kill twice as many Americans as those who die each year in car crashes. They kill more each year than AIDS and breast cancer combined.
“There are 75,000 people who die each year of health care-related infections,” said Heather Bernard, director of infection prevention for Mohawk Valley Health System. She oversees infection prevention programs at all MVHS locations, such as St. Elizabeth Medical Center, Faxton St. Luke’s Healthcare, and its long-term care facilities.
You might think of hospitals as sterile safety zones in the battle against infection. But in truth, they are ground zero for the invasion.
On any given day, about one in 25 hospital patients has at least one health care-associated infection. In the ongoing war of humans versus disease-causing bacteria, the bugs are gaining the upper hand. Deadly and unrelenting, they’re becoming more and more difficult to kill.
But there’s hopeful news: The MVHS is aggressively taking steps to reduce infections.
“We use best practices to reduce infections,” said Bernard, noting procedures are proven to produce optimal results.
“We insist on cleanliness. Cleanliness of patients, Cleanliness of health care providers, and cleanliness of the facility,” said Bernard.
“One basic is adequate hand washing,” she added. “This is the most important way to prevent hospital infections.”
They have long been encouraging doctors and nurses to wash their hands frequently. “Now we’re getting patients engaged; we’re starting a patient hand hygiene campaign. We’re making it easy for patients to wash their hands, like having a sanitizer at the bedside.”
“We have strict bathing practices,” she said. “All patients are bathed every day. For high-risk patients —such as those in the intensive care unit and those with central lines (catheters in the body) — in addition to a routine bath, we use a chlorhexidine gluconate bath.
“We have very strict cleaning practices so that every nook and cranny is thoroughly cleaned. We use only a certain disinfectant. We use disposable mops and cleaning cloths, so they aren’t carried from room to room. We then finish with an ultra-violet light machine to give an extra bang for your buck and get rid of invisible bacteria.”
Growth of ‘superbugs’
In addition to cleanliness, the other important concern for Bernard is the appropriate use of antibiotics. “We have a big push to make sure we’re giving the appropriate antibiotic,” she said. This is because many of these deadly infections can be traced back to the use of antibiotics, the very drugs that are supposed to fight the infections. The inappropriate use of antibiotics encourages the growth of “superbugs” that are immune to the drugs and kill off patients’ protective bacteria.
“We want to ensure the antibiotic is appropriate and that the patient needs it,” she added. “Not every infection requires an antibiotic. It’s important that antibiotics are not taken if they are not necessary. The more that we control this, the more we can control infections that are antibiotic-resistant.”
As a patient, there are several things you can do to reduce your risk of a hospital infection. Infections can occur after many types of medical procedures. This is particularly true if you are having surgery.
— Don’t be afraid to ask questions about your care so that you will fully understand your treatment plan and expected outcomes.
— If you have diabetes, be sure that you and your doctor discuss the best way to control your blood sugar before, during, and after your hospital stay. High blood sugar increases the risk of infection noticeably. The stress of surgery often makes glucose levels spike erratically. When blood glucose levels are tightly controlled, patients resist infection better. Continue monitoring even when you are discharged from the hospital, because you are not fully healed.
— If you are overweight, losing weight will reduce the risk of infection following surgery.
— If you are a smoker, consider a smoking cessation program. This will reduce the chance of developing a lung infection while in the hospital and may also improve your healing abilities following surgery.
— If you have an intravenous catheter, keep the skin around the dressing clean and dry. Tell your nurse promptly if the dressing works loose or gets wet. Avoid a catheter if possible.
— In any health care setting, wash your hands carefully after handling any type of soiled material. This is especially important after you have gone to the bathroom.