When Betsy McCaughey was lieutenant governor of New York, she was horrified by the number of her constituents who complained that their loved ones had died from infections they contracted in hospitals.
“I went to the funeral of a man who was winning his battle against cancer until he got a hospital infection,” McCaughey tells Newsmax Health.
After leaving office, McCaughey was determined to do something about hospital-acquired infections, which each year strike an estimated 2 million patients and cause 75,000 deaths.
That’s more than the death toll from car accidents, breast cancer, and AIDS combined.
What frustrates McCaughey is that hospitals already have tools to stop the carnage, but they aren’t using them.
“We have the knowledge to prevent these infections,” she says. “What is lacking is the will.”
In 2003, McCaughey founded the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths (RID) and she serves as the not-for-profit organization’s chairman.
Thanks to RID and other advocates, hospitals now take infections more seriously.
“When I started RID, hospital administrators would tell me that infection is the cost of doing business,” McCaughey says.
“Now you won’t hear any administrator say that. Hospital infections are preventable and unacceptable.”
According to the CDC, the most common hospital-acquired infections are:
• Pneumonia (22 percent)
• Surgical site infections (22 percent)
• Gastrointestinal infections (17 percent)
• Urinary tract infections (13 percent)
• Bloodstream infections (10 percent)
The most common germs responsible for hospital-acquired infections are:
• C. difficile (12 percent)
• Staphylococcus aureus, including MRSA (11 percent)
• Klebsiella (10 percent)
• E. coli (9 percent)
• Enterococcus (9 percent)
• Pseudomonas (7 percent)
Although all of these can be deadly, Klebsiella and E. coli are especially worrisome.
That’s because they belong to the Enterobacteriaceae family, which has become increasingly resistant to last-resort antibiotics known as carbapenems.
Hospital infections recently made headlines when an antibiotic superbug called CRE was spread through contaminated medical scopes at three Los Angeles-area hospitals. Two patients died.
Despite some improvements in hospital cleaning procedures, caregivers of hospitalized patients should always assume that their loved one’s room is a reservoir of harmful microbes and take steps to germ-proof it, McCaughey says.
Contaminated surfaces include everything from tray tables, bed rails, call buttons and TV remotes to the privacy curtain rod which is the first and last thing a doctor usually touches when visiting a patient.
There’s one hospital tradition that needs to change, said McCaughey.
“Forget the flowers and candy. If you’re visiting someone you love in the hospital, bring a canister of bleach wipes and a pair of gloves and wipe the surfaces all around the patient’s bedside.
“Do this every time you visit. You could be saving their life.”
Unlike soap and water, or alcohol-based hand wipes, bleach wipes kill virtually all infectious organisms.
These include the most common cause of hospital-acquired infections, C. difficile, which is impervious to other disinfectants and can survive for days on contaminated surfaces.
If your loved one is placed in a room that was previously occupied by someone with a C. difficile infection, he or she has a drastically increased risk of also becoming infected.
Compared to patients who do not contract a hospital-acquired infection, those who become infected are four times more likely to die. In addition, the monetary cost of their treatment is about four times higher.
“This is the next asbestos,” McCaughey says. “Hospitals have to prevent these infections because they’re going to be sued. We want to help the hospitals before the trial lawyers get to them.”
Thanks in part to the efforts of RID, hospitals in 31 states are now required to report their infection rates. Medicare now offers a website
with this vital information and data on other quality-of-care issues regarding specific hospitals.
RID’s home page — hospitalinfection.org
— has links to a wealth of information. You can also contact McCaughey at firstname.lastname@example.org or by writing to: Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, Attn: Betsy McCaughey, 5 Partridge Hollow Road, Greenwich, CT 06831.
15 Ways to Prevent Hospital Infections
1. Insist on clean hands: Ask that hospital staff sanitize their hands before treating you. Ask visitors to clean their hands, too. Alcohol-based hand sanitizers are more effective than soap and water. Don’t be falsely assured by gloves. If caregivers have pulled on gloves without cleaning their hands first, the gloves are contaminated.
2. Insist on a clean stethoscope: Ask that the diaphragm (the flat surface) be wiped with alcohol. Stethoscopes are often contaminated with Staphylococcus aureus and other dangerous bacteria, because caregivers seldom take time to clean them in between patient use.
3. Take central line precautions: If you need a “central line” catheter, ask your doctor about the benefits of one that is antibiotic-impregnated or silver-chlorhexidine coated to reduce infections.
4. Choose your surgeon wisely: Choose a surgeon with a low infection rate. Surgeons know their rate of infection for various procedures. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.
5. Bathe with chlorhexidine soap: Five days before surgery, shower or bathe daily with chlorhexidine soap, which is available over the counter. It will help remove dangerous bacteria from your skin.
6. Get tested for MRSA: Ask your surgeon to have you tested for methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) at least one week before you come into the hospital. If you have it, extra precautions can be taken to protect you from infection.
7. Kick the habit: Patients who smoke are three times as likely to develop a surgical site infection and have significantly slower recoveries and longer hospital stays.
8. Ask about a pre-surgical antibiotic: For many types of surgery, a pre-surgical antibiotic is the standard of care, but it is often overlooked by busy hospital staff.
9. Stay warm: Ask your doctor about keeping you warm during surgery. Patients who are kept warm resist infection better. This can be done with special blankets, hats and booties, and warmed IV liquids.
10. Avoid shaving the surgical site if possible: Razors can create nicks in the skin, through which bacteria can enter. If hair must be removed before surgery, ask that clippers be used instead of a razor.
11. To prevent C. diff, avoid touching your hands to your mouth and do not set food or utensils on any surface except a clean plate: C. diff germs frequently contaminate tables, bed linens, call buttons and other surfaces near your bed and they are easily picked up on your hands.
12. Get glucose levels monitored: Ask your doctor about monitoring your glucose (sugar) levels continuously during and after surgery, especially if you are having heart surgery. The stress of surgery often makes glucose levels spike erratically. When blood glucose levels are tightly controlled, heart patients resist infection better.
13. Avoid a urinary tract catheter if possible: It is a common cause of infection. Sometimes catheters are used when busy hospital staffers don’t have time to walk patients to the bathroom. If you get a catheter, ask your caregiver to remove it as soon as possible.
14. Frequently change IVs: If you must have an IV, make sure that it’s inserted and removed under clean conditions and changed every 3 to 4 days. Your skin should be cleaned at the site of insertion, and the person treating you should be wearing clean gloves. Alert hospital staff immediately if any redness appears.
15. Take C-section precautions: If you are planning to have your baby by Caesarean section, follow the steps listed above as if you were having any other type of surgery.
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