The nightly news is filled with depressing stories of people dying in car accidents and even worse reports of homicides. What we hear very little of is people dying of hospital-acquired infections. Must be because it’s so rare, right? Wrong. Actually more Americans die each year of hospital-acquired infection than auto accidents and homicides combined.
A hospital-acquired infection occurs when someone comes to the hospital with one condition and catches something else. In the age of antibacterial everything, how is this so common? Can we do anything to avoid this? We’ll explore these questions and more in this two part series. Next week we will go over different kinds of medical errors that are common while this week we’ll cover the ‘bugs’ that thrive in hospitals.
Hospitals are places where the sick gather. A wide assortment of germs calls the hospitals their home. Microscopic armies flourish in catheters and ventilators. Machines and equipment intended to save lives also serve as a locomotive for germs. They can survive for days on hospital rails, bed sheets and countertops. We have really strong antibacterial cleaners, but they do little good sitting in a box. Even when they are used they sometimes don’t work thanks to the antibacterial resistant bacteria or super-bugs out there.
The insurance system is not always set up to help this problem either. They will pay for the extra 10 days (average extra stay for those who develop a hospital infection) in the hospital. What they won’t pay for is the extra time and staffing necessary to prevent the infection in the first place. And doctors and hospital staff are expected to handle more patients to cut costs.
There are several things you can do regarding germs. Ask any staff that touches you to wash their hands. This should include equipment like stethoscopes that go from one bare chest to the next. Yes, this at first may sound a little direct, but you’re worth it. Ask if you can donate you own blood before a surgery in case you need it to minimize the risk of blood born infections. There is usually a shortage anyways. Ask if you can go without a catheter or when the soonest you can have it removed. 40 percent of all hospital infections come from the use of urinary catheters, so this would be a big help.
Never have body hair shaved right before a surgery if possible. Request to have the hair clipped instead. This will reduce the risk of infection through abrasions in the skin. And I believe one of the most important things to do is remember you’re in a hospital. Sounds obvious but now with some units of a hospital becoming homier, (like the maternity ward) folks can let their guard down along with their sanitation levels.
Another inherent flaw in our current medical model is the disempowerment created from the hospital/doctors being the authority and you the patient. Just the term patient seems to imply a sense of helplessness. To sit back and let others control your trip through the hospital ‘system’ may leave you vulnerable and lead to poor choices. It’s better to think of yourself as a partner in your health care.
If you have a health crisis or surgery, try to be as educated and informed as you can before you go to the hospital. If you don’t know much about the heath field, ask questions and try to have someone with you who can look out after you. You may not be in a position to make coherent decisions.
Many hospitals are working hard at reducing the inherent risks like germs. Some hospitals have cut infection rates nearly in half with the use of a simple checklist before any procedure. A handful of states (sorry not California) have now passed laws requiring hospitals to report their infection rates. Remember, hospitals are not to be feared, just respected for the possibilities they provide and sometimes the precautions necessary for the dangers possible.