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Proper Hand Hygiene in Hospitals Can Prevent Many Infections

Modern medicine features a dazzling array of high-tech gadgets and cutting-edge tests. And yet, amid the drive to specialize and innovate, it is unconscionable to put patients' lives at risk by forgetting the basics - something as simple as handwashing.

The failure of doctors and nurses to wash their hands regularly is a common medical mistake, and a major cause of infectious disease among hospital patients. The problem is so frequent that is has even been given its own acronym in the medical literature: HAI, for healthcare-acquired infections.

How frequently do these infections occur? Research studies have estimated the cost of hospital-acquired infections as up to $34 billion a year. Much of the cost comes from prolonged hospital stays, as patients have to remain in the hospital in order to get over the infections that they acquired there. There is also the risk that the infection will turn deadly, especially among elderly patients.

Research on Sanitary Protocols

One of the leading experts on the connection between hand hygiene and hospital-acquired infections is Dr. Elaine Larson of the Columbia University School of Nursing. The American Nurses Foundation has dubbed her "the handwashing queen."

Research by Dr. Larson and others has shown that strict enforcement of sanitary protocols - namely, regular handwashing and use of hand sanitizers - can dramatically reduce the number of incidents of hospital acquired infections.

In the confined space of a hospital, bacteria abound. So do viruses, which are sometimes spread when a healthcare professional comes in to work despite having a cold. When a doctor or nurse with unclean hands pulls back the privacy curtain around a patient's bed or touches the bed rail, the bacteria deposited there can easily lead to an infection.

Types of Infections

There are many different types of infections, including gastrointestinal, respiratory and skin infections. The risk of contracting all of them increases when hospital hand hygiene is poor.

One of the nastiest infections is Clostridium difficile, usually known as C. difficile or simply C. diff. This is a virulent bacterium that can cause life-threatening inflammation of the colon, known as colitis. If not fatal, colitis can result in someone having to wear an ostomy bag for the rest of their life to dispose of bodily waste.

So-called "staph" infections are also dangerous. "Staph" is shorthand for Staphylococcus aerus bacteria. These types of bacteria include one known as MRSA that can be especially serious. "Gut bacteria" (referring to the Enterococci bacterium in its various species) is yet another danger, particularly the types that are resistant to antibiotics.

Contaminated Privacy Curtains

Further evidence of the prevalence of infection-causing bacteria in hospitals came in a recent research study on privacy curtains around patients' beds. Researchers from the University of Iowa tested 43 privacy curtains for three weeks, taking swabs twice a day.

The study found that 12 of the 13 curtains became contaminated with bacteria within one week. Dr. Michael Ohl, who participated in the research, was clear in his statement about its implications.

"There is a growing recognition," he said, "that the hospital environment plays an important role in the transmission of infections in the health care setting and it's clear that these [privacy curtains] are potentially important sites of contamination because they are frequently touched by patients and providers."

The most important strategy for preventing the transfer of bacteria from the curtains to patients is none other than handwashing. To be sure, the curtains should be changed more often and cleaned more often. They could even be made of different fabrics, more resistant to bacteria. But the most effective step in preventing infections is the simple, practical one of having medical staff wash their hands immediately after pulling the privacy curtain.

Wrongful Deaths from HAIs

Healthcare-acquired infections (HAI) do not merely result in a large cumulative cost from increased hospital stays. They also kill people.

The statistics are startling. Recent research by Dr. Rebecca Roberts and others has documented that 12.7 percent of hospital patients acquire an infection while in the hospital. That is more than 1 in every 10 patients!

And some of those patients die. In the medical literature, this goes by the euphemistic term "attributable mortality." Translated into human terms, it means that an infection that a patient acquired in the hospital led to his or her death.

When that happens, grieving families have every right to consider a wrongful death lawsuit . So too do patients injured by infections that should have been prevented. Although not every HAI is the result of hospital errors, many of them are. When a damaging or even lethal infection results from a hospital's failure to follow simple sanitary protocols, there really is no excuse.

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