Why American Hospitals Are Littered With Infections

Hospital-acquired infections continue to be a big problem in healthcare. Recent research notes that nearly 4 percent of patients receive a new infection while they’re hospitalized. Eleven percent of those infections become deadly.

“The simplest way to say this is that about 100,000 people die each year from infections we give them in the hospital,” Dr. Peter Pronovost, director of the Quality and Safety Research Group at Johns Hopkins University tells CNN. “That’s enormous.”

Though the trend has gone down in magnitude significantly from 50 years ago when there were nearly 2.1 million infections per year, it’s still a problem that hospitals need to address.

“There has been some progress, today and every day, but more than 200 Americans with healthcare-associated infections will die during their hospital stay,” said CDC Director, Dr. Tom Frieden.

Hospitals Health care InfectionsThe unfortunate truth is that hospitals can be hot spots for infections. Patients with serious conditions are treated alongside sick and vulnerable patients, who are cared for by the same healthcare workers and are sometimes treated with the same equipment. These infections are largely preventable, but they still happen at an alarming rate. Where are these infections coming from and why do they still occur so frequently?

The two deadliest types of hospital infections occur from ventilator infections and catheter infections. Others occur due to pneumonia, surgical infections, and stomach or intestinal illnesses, urinary tract and bloodstream infections.

While most hospitals employ standard forms of infection prevention: constant washing of hands; sterilization of equipment; giving patients antibiotics to fend off infection; and sterilizing rooms between patients; infections still happen.

The unfortunate truth of it all is that medical care is done by humans, and as such there can be gaps in quality care. These gaps in quality can be dangerous, and can negatively impact the patient experience.

“Far too many Americans get sick in the hospital,” Frieden said in an interview with The New York Times. “The importance of making care safer cannot be overstated.” But there are limitations as to what the CDC is able to do, as they can only recommend safe practices. They don’t actually have the authority to mandate new protocol. Because hospitals are owned by various corporations, it’s difficult to determine how effectively patients are being treated and how disease and infection are being prevented. If a patient is moved from hospital-to-hospital, Frieden explains, it can cause problems.

It’s a problem that hospitals are working to improve.

Many hospitals are experimenting with implementing new techniques for disinfection and keeping patients safer.

First, a number of hospitals are working to prescribe antibiotics more wisely. This prevents the spread of superbugs, which are immune to the effects of antibiotics and are very difficult — if not impossible — to treat. Patients who get the right antibiotics, at the right time, in the right dose, help prevent the spread of these diseases.

Second, hospitals are working on ways to better disinfect their surfaces. Bacterial infections such as C. diff and MRSA can live on surfaces for days and be passed from person-to-person via hospital equipment or healthcare providers. To prevent spreading them, hospitals have to be kept scrupulously clean, starting with hand hygiene. Hospitals have also implemented policies that require cleaning of patient rooms multiple times a day, including bedding and curtains. Some hospitals are getting even more experimental, using disinfecting machines that use ultraviolet lights that are so powerful no one is permitted to be in the room.

All of these efforts have helped, as infection rates have certainly gone down. MRSA infection rates, as an example, have been reduced by 13 percent in the past four years. But there’s more that can be done. In Britain, MRSA infections have been reduced by 80 percent over the last decade.

Dr. Mark Wilcox, the head of medical microbiology at Leeds Teaching Hospitals, attributes this, in part, to a coordinated, single health system throughout the country. To encourage better hygienic practice, National Health Service hospitals post infection rates on public boards that can be accessed by doctors, patients and visitors alike.

Hospitals in Britain are also “obsessional” about hand hygiene, Dr. Wilcox told The New York Times. “To do the best cleaning job, health workers must be ‘bare below the elbows,’ with no watches on the wrist. Lab coats, while making a doctor look professional, are also banned, as they can brush up against patients and transfer bacteria from one patient to the next,” he described.

Hospitals that fail to meet hygienic standards and infection reduction measures are visited by professionals that help them better meet those targets.

Britain’s model is proof that a large proportion of infections are preventable if hospital staff and administrations actively work to address the issue at hand.

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Avery PhillipsAvery T. Phillips is a freelance human being with too much to say. She loves nature and examining human interactions with the world. Comment or tweet her @a_taylorian with any questions or suggestions.