Speak up: How to protect yourself from infection at the hospital

A new report published in JAMA Internal Medicine estimates hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) cost the American health care system $9.8 billion each year.

The five most common – and subsequently, most costly – of these infections include bloodstream infections; ventilator-associated pneumonia; infections at surgical sites; Clostidium difficile (C. diff) infection; and catheter-associated urinary tract infections.

There are many factors that have contributed to this epidemic including the overutilization of antibiotics leading to resistant bacteria, more frequent treatment of chronic conditions in hospital settings and an increase in invasive technological monitors.

Overall, HAIs affect between 5 to 10 percent of hospitalized patients and cause 99,000 deaths annually, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

And while many private and government health agencies, including the CDC, have tried to control HAIs through different initiatives, the study authors noted that “much more remains to be done.”

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Surprisingly, one factor that continues to be a major problem is the human factor.

One of the major problems in hospitals is so simple, yet so incredibly important -  a lack of hand washing. It doesn’t matter what data you look at with regard to this issue, I can tell you from years of experience that doctors and nurses are vectors for the transmission of bacteria inside the hospital setting.

I’ve been asked by patients why so many signs in hospital corridors and patient rooms point out the importance of hand washing. My answer is always that no matter how obvious it may be, we need to constantly remind health care professionals to do it. Hospitals desperately need to create a culture of hygiene, but that simple fact is often forgotten in the midst of the many emergencies and life-or-death situations that can creep up throughout the day.

So, how should you protect yourself?

Pay attention. If you don’t see your health care professional wash their hands before they touch you, or if a procedure is being done, like the placement of a catheter or a simple wound dressing, without sterile gloves, speak up. You’ll be doing both of us a favor.