Action Needed to Combat Hospital Infections

posted Apr 10, 2014, 8:11 AM by Todd Fox   [ updated Sep 23, 2016, 2:20 PM ]

Reports recently released in both the United States and Canada reveal that far more needs to be done in the hospitals of both countries to limit patient exposure to hospital acquired infections (HAIs).

In Canada, where approximately 220,000 Canadians (or approximately 0.6% of the population) are infected with an HAI annually, a new survey revealed that a startling number (38%) of hospital infection control experts believe their hospitals are not clean enough to prevent the spread of infectious organisms like C. difficile. The survey was conducted in late 2012 and early 2013, and comprised the infection control experts of 113 hospitals across Canada.

C. difficile, the bacteria and spores of which are found in feces, can be picked up by coming into contact with contaminated surfaces, objects, or other people, and is potentially fatal. It accounts for more than half of the offending infections in Canadian hospitals, and the death rate from C. difficile has tripled in Canada over the past 15 years.

As hygiene of hospital staff is paramount to preventing the spread of the bacteria to patients, hand-washing campaigns have been initiated that have been successful in improving the rate of hand hygiene amongst Canadian health care practitioners from a lowly 30% into the 80-90% range.

U.S Numbers Just as Bleak

In the U.S, the numbers are just as stark. Approximately 4% of patients pick up a HAI during their hospital stays according to the CDC, which is up from their previous estimates. 200 of those infected patients will end up dying from their infection annually, while 75,000 patients will die in U.S hospitals annually with a HAI (without it being the primary cause of death).

Pneumonia accounted for the most common infection type, along with surgical site infections, with 157,500 of each case. C. difficile was the most common bacteria leading to infections. Other bacteria included Klebsiella, E. coli, Enterococcus, andPseudomonasThe former two, part of the Enterobacteriaceae family of bacteria, are becoming resistant to last-resort antibiotics according to the CDC.

Antibiotic Overuse Partially to Blame for Infections?

One prominent characteristic of C. difficile is that an infection is more likely to take control when a patient is on antibiotics. As antibiotics alter (and often temporarily destroy) the gut bacteria of those taking them, it allows C. difficile to take root in the gut and flourish. It’s not surprising then that the Public Health Agency of Canada recommends not only diligent hand-washing and hygiene, but also careful use of antibiotics to limit the number of patients that could be threatened by C. difficile.

As the CDC reported in early March, antibiotic overuse is not only putting patients at risk of contracting infections like C. difficile, it’s also leading to less and less effectiveness from the drugs themselves, and further fuelling the creation of drug resistant superbugs.

What Patients Can Do to Help

Hygiene amongst patients is just as important as for the medical professionals themselves, and patients should avoid touching objects and surfaces in their rooms and around the hospital as much as possible, while keeping their hands clean whenever they can. Patients should be as proactive regarding their health and well-being as they can be, factoring in their given condition at the time.

Patients are also encouraged to ask their doctors or nurses if they’ve washed their hands, with some U.S hospitals posting signs saying “It’s OK to ask”. Whether their stay is at a hospital, a long term care facility, an intensive care unit, or a rehab center, patients need to have complete faith in their health care provider, as they are often  putting their lives in their hands. Hand hygiene is particularly important in the ICU, where patients have weakened and vulnerable immune systems that are susceptible to infection. In long term care facilities and rehab centers for addiction and physical rehabilitation where patients are often staying for extended periods of time, added emphasis needs to be placed on cleaning and disinfecting one's sleeping quarters to remove bacteria, allowing those patients to focus on their recovery with confidence.

"It's Ok to Ask"

A study conducted in Canada last summer also showed that doctors were more cognizant of washing their hands when they knew patients were watching them, which could give hospitals incentive to make hand-washing stations more readily available in patient rooms.

Other advancements are also being worked on that could further improve hand hygiene among health care workers. One promising field is wearable tech, with devices that could be used to alert practitioners to when they should be washing their hands and how well they've done so. Hyginex, a company in the hand hygiene technology field recently received an investment from Persistent Systems to help them launch their devices, which would monitor hand rub duration and frequency, among other factors.

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