Hospital-Acquired Infections: Getting Sick at the Hospital

Most people think of hospitals as places where they and their loved ones go to get well. However, statistics support a growing concern that patients are contracting infections and diseases while being treated in hospitals, leading to further injury, illness or even death.

According to a New York Times columnist, infections contracted at hospitals and clinics, known clinically as hospital-acquired infections, result in 100,000 patient deaths in the U.S. every year. There are several ways a patient might acquire an infection during a hospital stay, including:

  • Contact with unsterile equipment
  • Contact with a healthcare provider's contaminated clothing
  • Poor hand-washing by doctors and nurses

When the New York Times columnist's brother contracted four other infections while being treated for pneumonia in a hospital, the columnist asked a doctor how that could happen. The doctor answered by leaning over the brother, demonstrating how his tie brushed the brother's hospital gown. "It could be anything. It could be my tie spreading germs," he said.

In Britain, the problem of potentially-contaminated clothing prompted the British National healthcare system to institute a "bare below the elbow" dress code that prohibits healthcare providers from wearing ties, lab coats, jewelry on the hands and wrists and long fingernails to prevent the spread of illness in hospitals.

And even though hand-washing is one of the simplest, easiest and best ways to prevent the spread of germs, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that U.S. healthcare workers have a poor record of following hand-washing rules.

To reduce the risk of hospital-acquired infections, whether from dirty equipment, dirty hands or dirty clothing, healthcare experts urge patients and family members to speak up about cleanliness with their healthcare providers. Patients should feel free to ask their healthcare providers if they washed their hands before entering their rooms, for example, and they should inquire with their healthcare providers if they see something that might help spread infection. While it may be difficult to question or challenge a medical professional, the potential consequences of letting unclean behavior slide can be even worse.

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