When I think of the important battles in public health -- issues that our society recognize as priorities due to widespread problems or needs -- the issue of Healthcare Associated Infection (HAI) doesn’t necessarily cross my mind right away.
But this is because I was totally unaware that according to the CDC’s data, one out of 20 patients who are hospitalized each year contract an HAI while undergoing treatment.
HAIs claim the lives of many people who already have vulnerable health statuses and incur huge costs for the health systems. According to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), “HAIs are the most common complication of hospital care and one of the leading causes of death in the US.”
On top of this, the cost associated with these infections is estimated at an excess of $28 to $33 billion. Clearly, this is a bigger battle than I originally thought!
Healthcare Associated Infections are caused by a “variety of common and unusual bacteria, fungi, and viruses” and are often related to devices such as catheters, ventilators or central lines, which are inserted into the body to perform important procedures.
These infections can occur either at the surgical site, or as part of a more systemic infection. HAIs may also be caused by prolonged use of antibiotics while hospitalized, which can result in a gastrointestinal infection called Clostridium difficile infection.
Additionally, methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a staph bacteria that is resistant to certain antibiotics, and occurs most frequently among patients in health care settings whose immune systems are already compromised and who come in contact with others who are already infected.
MRSA is most often a skin infection, and is also commonly spread in other situations where people come into close skin-to-skin contact like athletic facilities or dormitories.
Luckily, health professionals have made huge strides in reducing rates of HAI in hospital settings through increased education of providers, better enforcement of sterilization procedures and more research/surveillance at local, state and federal levels.
As a result, since 2001, medical professionals have reduced HAIs in intensive care unit patients by 58 percent, saving close to 27,000 lives and $1.8 billion dollars. Furthermore, infections associated with central lines (one of the deadliest and most common HAIs) were reduced by 73 percent.
Another effort to prevent HAIs focuses on the education of medical professionals and a regulation of the settings or procedures that provide outpatient care. Previously, infection prevention strategies were far less comprehensive for patients receiving care in their homes, hemodialysis centers or in ambulances. By providing guidelines and recommendations on sterilization and disinfection of equipment, the CDC has helped to reduce infection rates overall.
So, what can you do to protect yourself from acquiring an infection in a health care setting? You may feel helpless to prevent some of the more serious conditions, but there is plenty we can each do to prevent transmission.
1. Wash your hands often and thoroughly. It sounds silly, but it saves lives.
2. Speak up! Talk to your doctor about any concerns you have and ask what they will do to protect you. Clarify, "will there be a new needle, new syringe, and a new vial for this procedure or injection?" The answer should always be yes.
3. Follow directions for taking medication. Take it exactly as prescribed and do not take it if it is not recommended by a doctor. Remember that antibiotics will not cure a virus like the flu or the common cold. This will help to prevent drug resistance.
4. Follow the directions for pre-surgery preparation. Clean the site as your provider recommends.
5. Know the signs of an infection and learn more about the symptoms of MRSA, C. difficile or surgical site infections. Speak to your doctor if you suspect any problems.
6. Read more about HAI at http://www.cdc.gov/HAI/index.html!
“Healthcare-Associated Infections.” September 2011. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD. http://www.ahrq.gov/qual/hais.htm
“Healthcare Associated Infection.” September 2011. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atlanta, GA. http://www.cdc.gov/HAI/index.html
Reviewed October 24, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Malu Banuelos