Hospitals are a place of healing and recovery. But they are also a place where infections can spread easily if proper precautions aren’t taken. In the United States, healthcare-acquired infections are an all-too-frequent occurrence, affecting one out of every 20 to 30 patients. Fortunately, with everyone working together, the risk of infection can be greatly minimized.
What are the risk factors for infection?
There are a number of factors that contribute to the high risk of infection in a healthcare setting. Because patients are in a state of reduced health, their immune systems are often weakened. This leaves them more susceptible to infection. Additionally, they may have an open surgical wound, central line or catheter, all which make it easier for bacteria to enter the bloodstream.
Bacteria can also be quite resilient. If left alone, some bacteria are able to live on surfaces for up to eight months. Patients, visitors, and staff may also contribute to this risk if they arrive with the flu. Each year, approximately 36,000 people die of the flu in the United States. Finally, antibiotics can be a factor, with one in four prescribed inappropriately.
How do we minimize the risk of infection in a hospital?
Minimizing the risk of infection in a hospital begins with education and prevention. An infection control nurse works in tandem with hospital leadership to lead these efforts. Patients, visitors, and staff all play a role in preventing infections.
Proper handwashing is at the center of these efforts. This involves every person washing their hands thoroughly before entering and leaving a patient’s room. Hand sanitization stations are also placed outside of each patient room and at all entrances and exits. Secret surveyors and ongoing education reinforce compliance.
Particularly during flu season, visitor restrictions exist to limit the spread of germs. Staff and patients are vaccinated as recommended, and staff remains at home when sick. Staff health is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of flu in a healthcare setting.
Interdepartmental collaboration is also key in defending against the spread of infection. This involves making sure all surfaces are thoroughly disinfected and oversight for administering antibiotics. An antibiotic stewardship team reviews prescribed regiments for appropriateness and effectiveness. This team involves the infection control nurse, pharmacist, and medical director, among others.
What about patients who arrive with an infection?
Hospitals prepare for a patient with an infection before they arrive on site. Outside of the patient’s room will be a station containing all the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE) to enter the room. This PPE might include gowns, masks, and gloves, and is available for both staff and visitors. PPE is used when a patient has contagious organisms to prevent the spread of those organisms. Signage is also posted on the patient’s door, alerting everyone of what precautions need to be taken. These signs are often color-coded for ease of recognition.
Once the patient arrives, the infection control nurse meets with the patient. The nurse provides education on what organisms they are dealing with and what protocols should be followed. This helps the patient to be an advocate for themselves, both with their care team and their visitors. Patients play a key role in their own safety by knowing the signs of infection and encouraging everyone to keep their hands clean.
Patients, staff, and visitors all play a role in preventing the spread of infection in a hospital through education and collaboration.