We all know that infection is a very real risk during a hospital stay. And the numbers are staggering—at least 1.7 million Americans develop a hospital-acquired infection each year, and 99,000 people die from it. But aside from being vigilant about asking medical staff to wash their hands, is there really anything a patient can do to prevent infection? Absolutely! There are several additional—and, in some cases, surprising—approaches…
Start the conversation. Many doctors never raise the subject of hospital-acquired infection unless the patient brings it up. So, bring it up! Ask your doctor what the overall infection rate is at the hospital where you are going to be treated. If he/she doesn’t know, call the facility and ask for the infection control officer (required at every hospital). The infection rate should be below 6%. If it’s above that, talk to your doctor about using a different hospital. But keep in mind that your overall medical status is an important factor. For example, people with diabetes are at higher risk for postsurgical infections, but if presurgical blood glucose levels are well-controlled, infection rates drop. Cancer patients having surgical procedures have been found to have a higher risk of developing pneumonia after surgery. But getting a presurgical pneumonia vaccine or, in some cases, taking a presurgical antibiotic can lower that risk. My advice: If you are being hospitalized for a specific health problem, be sure that your doctor is aware of any other medical conditions you may have.
Beware of certain procedures. Research shows that certain procedures have relatively high risks for infection. For example, close to 10% of colorectal surgical patients develop surgical site infections (at the incision). Other procedures with high risks for infection include bladder catheterizations and the use of a breathing tube or intravenous (IV) line. But studies have found that, in some cases, wearing special surgical blankets and hats before—and sometimes during—surgery can help your body fight infection. My advice: Ask your doctor about steps that can be taken to keep you warm during surgery and/or when you are given IVs.
Check out the latest research. Numerous medical studies have been published on just about all medical procedures. And most discuss infection risk. My advice: Ask your doctor to discuss what the studies show are the infection risks associated with your procedure. Also ask about infection risks for other procedures that might be appropriate. For example, an open surgical gallbladder removal has a higher infection risk than laparoscopic gallbladder removal.
Be alert at home. Many infections do not become apparent until after you get home. An infection may also be contracted when a nurse or other health-care provider administers care in your home. My advice: Be watchful for signs of infection, including increasing tenderness, redness or pus at an incision site, unexplained fever or internal pain that was unexpected in the course of your healing. When in doubt, immediately call your doctor.
Source: Charles B. Inlander, a consumer advocate and health-care consultant based in Fogelsville, Pennsylvania. He was the founding president of the nonprofit People’s Medical Society, a consumer advocacy organization credited with key improvements in the quality of US health care in the 1980s and 1990s, and is the author of 20 books, including Take This Book to the Hospital With You: A Consumer Guide to Surviving Your Hospital Stay (St. Martin’s).