Hospitals that make sick people sicker: hospital-acquired infections continue to be a big risk for patients

Being a patient in a hospital can help extend your life through excellent medical care, but at the same time, hospitals can be one of the most dangerous places to get a life-threatening infection that can complicate your treatment.

A new state report from the Pennsylvania Department of Health concludes that 25,914 patients undergoing surgeries and other treatments in hospitals last year had their conditions complicated by infections they picked up during their stays, according to a blog post today in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

That’s a lot of infections and a lot of patients who are often made sicker than they were when they went in to the hospitals.

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In the meantime, more can and should be done to stop this problem to better protect patients and reduce health costs.

The report for the first time covers a full year of infection data from 250 hospitals in the Commonwealth, breaking it down by individual facilities, according to the Inquirer story.

For prospective patients, the data can show what the post-surgery infection rates are in a wide range of hospitals across Pennsylvania, while for the institutions, the report can serve as a yardstick to continue to work to reduce this troublesome problem.

Patients certainly shouldn’t be sicker after their surgery than they were before they came in, due to infections they pick up while in the hospital.

That’s just outrageous in today’s world.

Patients can sue and take legal action in such cases to obtain deserved monetary awards, but they simply shouldn’t have to go through such increased pain and suffering in the first place.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta estimates that 1.7 million healthcare-related infection cases occur in hospitals each year across the nation, including 99,000 deaths. The national statistics break down with 32% of the cases being related to urinary tract infections, while another 22% are surgical site infections. Some 15% are pneumonia (lung infections), while 14% are bloodstream infections.

In the new Pennsylvania report, the figures are a bit different. Here, the most common infection complications came from surgeries, with 6,277 cases, or 23.7%, based on data collected by the CDC. Urinary tract infections  made up 6,145 cases, while gastrointestinal infections made up 4,848 cases and bloodstream infections totaled 3,271 cases.

Better reporting of in-hospital infection cases is a great start, but improved procedures and infection prevention practices is also necessary to ensure patient safety.

As a health care consumer, you have a right to expect to go into a hospital and come out feeling better, not getting sicker, due to your stay.

In the event you get an in-hospital infection during a hospital stay, be sure that you seek legal help and advice to help protect your legal standing and your family.

So what can you do as a health care consumer to avoid getting such an infection in the first place?

You can search online and investigate your local hospitals and get their rates of such infections before you ever set foot in the place.

Here are some great tips from the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s Clean Hands Save Lives Program:

*Choose a good hospital and a healthcare provider you trust.

*Ask your surgeon lots of detailed questions about your risk for infection and means of prevention.

*If you smoke and you’re going to need surgery, stop smoking well before your scheduled surgery date. Patients who smoke are three times more likely to develop a surgical site infection as nonsmokers, and have significantly slower recoveries and longer hospital stays.

*If you are overweight, try to lose weight before having surgery. People who are at a healthy weight will have a lower risk of infection following surgery.

*If you have diabetes, talk to your healthcare provider about ways to control your blood sugar before, during and after any hospital stay. High blood sugar levels have been found to increase the risk of getting an infection. Be sure to inform your doctor of any medications you are taking.

*Ask your healthcare provider about showering or bathing with chlorhexidine soap three to five days before surgery. This can help remove any dangerous bacteria you may be carrying on your skin.

*Tell your doctor about any medications you are taking, including vitamins, herbal medicines, and over-the-counter medications.

*When possible, treat any existing infections you may have before having any type of surgical procedure. This includes all infections, not just those near the portion of your body undergoing surgery.

*While in the hospital, wash your hands often and carefully. The simple act of washing your hands is perhaps the single most effective way you can avoid getting an infection. It’s equally important to help your doctors, nurses, and other medical staff to remember to wash their hands as well.

*Make sure hospital staff cleans and disinfects any surfaces or equipment you may come in contact with, such as bed rails, sinks, and medical equipment. A common source of bacteria are stethoscopes, which caregivers often do not clean between patients. Before your doctor or nurse uses a stethoscope, ask that it be cleaned with alcohol.

*Ask anyone who is coughing to wear a mask or stay at least six feet away from you. This will help reduce your risk of getting an infection that is transmitted through the air. If possible, have family and friends postpone visits if they are feeling ill.

*Watch for proper catheter use, and ask about your options. Catheters are long, thin flexible tubes that are inserted in your body to deliver or remove fluids. Because they enter through the skin or a body opening, they can allow infections to enter your body. Ask your doctor about the benefits of using a catheter that is coated with antibiotics or silver-chlorhexidine to reduce infections. Try to avoid a urinary tract catheter if possible, as this is one of the most common sources of infection.

*Avoid touching your hands to your mouth, nose, or eyes, or setting food or utensils on the furniture or bed. Some types of germs can live for many days on surfaces and can cause infections if they get into your nose, eyes, or mouth.

*If you have an IV, make sure that it’s cleaned properly when inserted and removed, and that it’s changed every 3 to 4 days. The person treating you should clean your skin where the IV is inserted, and should be wearing clean gloves. If any redness appears, alert hospital staff immediately.

*Remind your doctor that you may need to take an antibiotic before having surgery. For many surgeries, you should receive an antibiotic an hour or so before your surgery to help prevent a surgical site infection. If you don’t receive an antibiotic before your surgery, ask your doctor whether one is necessary.

*Remember that there are some things beyond your control and expertise. You’ve researched your healthcare provider, and reviewed infection rates at different hospitals. You’ve been an active participant in your medical care, paying close attention, and not hesitating to ask questions or let someone know if you think something may be wrong. Now you can know that you have done everything in your power to protect yourself from hospital infection. Remember, in most cases, your healthcare providers are trying their best to prevent infection as well.

Arming yourself with information is a key to making sure that you receive excellent medical care and a bright post-operative, infection-free future after your hospital procedures. Lots of related information is available at the state Department of Health Web site.

The work being done to reduce healthcare-related infections is certainly helping, according to the latest statistics. Previously, figures tallied by the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council found that there were 30,237 cases of healthcare-related infections in Pennsylvania hospitals in 2006 and 27,949 infections in 2007 – both higher than the 2009 figures released today. The reporting of such infection cases was mandated under a new state law, Act 52, in 2007.

Things are getting better slowly, but we still have a long way to go.

Be sure to talk with a lawyer if you believe you are the victim of such an infection during a medical procedure so you can protect yourself and your family.