Having Surgery? 8 Ways to Avoid a Hospital Infection
An infection control specialist explains how to protect yourself in the hospital
Hospitals are for healing, but they can also be places where you can come to get healthy and end up with a nasty and sometimes life-threatening infection. In some cases, patients have died or been permanently disabled by contracting a superbug infection.
In one study, a formerly healthy young man said he had to give up his dream of being a chef after a drug-resistant staph infection he acquired in a hospital left him in constant pain and unable to walk. Years after the infection, he still has to take antibiotics so powerful that they caused his teeth to crumble. “It ruined my life,” he told researchers. “I'm disabled, I haven’t gone out. I need a scooter now to get out.”
Scientists have been working hard to reduce hospital infections and other avoidable problems, with some success: Hospital-acquired conditions dropped 17 percent from 2010 to 2013 — a feat that saved an estimated 50,000 lives during that three-year period alone.
Still, about one in every 10 patients develops an infection or another problem (such as a bad reaction to a drug) that is entirely preventable.
Patients can help protect themselves from infections by taking a few key steps and by insuring that doctors, nurses and other hospital staff follow important safety precautions. “Patients are very much part of their own care now,” says Maria Whitaker, an infection preventionist at Cortland Regional Medical Center in Cortland, New York. “It’s all right to speak up.”
Here are 10 ways you can help protect yourself if you or a loved one has a stay in the hospital.
Compare hospitals’ infection rates. Just as you may want to know how much experience a surgeon has before you agree to have him or her operate on you, you also can compare different hospitals using the government website Hospital Compare in terms of their rates of infection and other complications. If you have a choice of hospitals, factor a facility’s infection rates into your decision.
Ask about the hospital’s cleaning staff. Here’s a real shocker: If your hospital outsources its cleaning, you may have a problem on your hands (or on your catheter, infusion pump or doorknob). Several studies found that hospital infection rates tend to spike after hospitals lay off their regular cleaning employees and hire outside contractors. Why? Daniel Zuberi, PhD, of the University of Toronto, looked into the issue for his Cornell University Press book on hospital cleaning crews. Among other things, he found that hospitals often gave little or no training to the contract cleaners, and that a lack of proper supplies and disinfectants meant they would often spread dangerous germs around rather than remove them.
Clean your surgical site at home. “If you’re going to be cut open, it’s a good idea to wash yourself with an antimicrobial soap before you go in,” Whitaker says. Use a product like Hibiclens, sold in most pharmacies. Don’t stop there, though: Clean other sites where bacteria lurk, such as the underarms and groin. If you don’t get this done at home, make sure the hospital staff does it.
Put down that razor. If you’re going in for surgery, don’t shave your face, legs or underarms for a few days beforehand. Shaving with a razor can nick you, creating an entryway for germs, Whitaker says. If you need to be shaved around the surgical site, hospital staff members should do it with clippers. If they start to use a razor, ask them to use the clippers instead.
Witness hand washing. Every doctor, nurse or staff member who comes into contact with you should wash their hands when they come into your room — and you should watch them do it. If they don’t, or they say they’ve already washed, you should politely insist. “It’s OK to say I want to see you wash your hands,” Whitaker says. Most healthcare workers have been educated to expect and honor such a request and some wear pins encouraging patients to ask them to wash.
Ask about limiting tubes — and have them removed ASAP. Every tube, catheter and IV line that pokes into you provides an on-ramp into your body for germs. Whitaker’s advice: “Ask your doctor: ‘Do we really need this tube inside of me, and when is the soonest we can take it out?’”
Get in and get out. Try and keep your hospital stay as short as possible. The longer you remain, the greater your chances of developing an infection. Talk with your doctor at the outset about how long you're likely to be in, then follow up after your treatment by asking if it’s time to go.
Make sure visitors take precautions. Of course you want to see your mother, but don’t let her or any family member visit if they’ve been sick recently. All visitors should wash their hands and wear gowns or a mask if the hospital recommends it.
In the age of the empowered patient, you need to be your own advocate when you go into the hospital. Be informed, and speak up for yourself. It could save your life. As Maria Whitaker says, when it comes to protecting yourself in the hospital, “this is no time to be shy.”