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Protecting Ourselves from Healthcare-Related Infections

Posted Jul 13th, 2009 by Trisha Torrey

I’ll confess – it’s true.  When I contracted mononucleosis, the "kissing disease," while in college, I expect I really did get it from kissing!

But it turns out that mono spreads in many ways, from sharing a drinking glass, to shaking hands, to simply touching someone who carries the germ. So it’s possible I got mono from simply shaking someone else’s hand, or even sitting next to him in class… however….

The germ that causes mono is only one of millions of illness-causing germs. They may be bacterial or viral, and their resulting infections can cause us to get very sick, or even die. We can breathe germs, or eat them, or they can enter our bodies through open wounds or orifices such as eyes or ears.

Consider these statistics:

·         Ordinary influenza, seasonal flu, caused by a virus, kills 20,000 Americans each year.

·         MRSA, a bacterial staph infection found widely in hospitals, infects more than 100,000 Americans, and causes 13,000 deaths each year.

·         Sixty thousand Americans die annually from pneumonia, which may be viral or bacterial.

·         And of course, now we know that H1N1 swine flu has become pandemic, meaning, it’s being passed daily by people who just aren’t washing their hands well enough.

The dangers posed by illness-producing germs are the reason most states insist doctors and other healthcare workers take courses in controlling infection. One thing they learn is that simply washing their hands with soap and water is one of best ways to keep from spreading germs.

Knowing that, the results of a study in 2004 will astonish you.

Doctors and medical students in a hospital setting were observed for hand washing practices during patient visits. Despite the fact they knew they were being observed, they washed their hands only 57 percent of the time they should have. Germs were spread by the very professionals whose job it was to make the patients well!

And they aren’t spread simply by touching the patient directly either.  Different germs can live for differing amounts of time on different surfaces.  So, for example, they may live on a stethoscope, on the doctor’s coat, on the blood pressure cuff, the bed linens or rails, even the telephone or the TV remote. If you are in a doctor’s office, they may be passed on the exam table, the chair in the room, even the door handle.  So, anyone carrying germs on his or her hands, who then touches something you, the patient subsequently touches, may be passing those germs on to you, too.

Last spring my father was hospitalized after a mild heart attack.  From the EMTs to the emergency room personnel – doctors, nurses and others – to the nurses and others who cared for him in his hospital room, we were dismayed at the numbers of people who were there to help him, who didn’t automatically take the time needed to stop to wash their hands before they touched Dad.  Over the course of three days in the hospital, I observed him asking them to wash their hands on at least a dozen occasions.  I was proud of him for taking the initiative!  I asked them at a dozen times myself.  That was 24+ times he might have been infected, had we not stopped them and insisted they wash their hands.

Clearly, we need a system we can be confident will prevent the spread of germs as much as possible.

What does that mean to us as good advocates for ourselves? When it’s time for a doctor visit, and even more importantly, if you find yourself in the hospital, make sure that everyone, especially healthcare workers, washes their hands before they touch you or touch anything you will touch, too.  And be sure that if you will be staying there for any length of time, as you do for a hospital stay, you plan to kill any germs that may have already taken up residence.

How? A sink and soap are found in most examination rooms and hospital rooms. Observe the person who will examine or treat you when she comes into your room. If she washes her hands while you watch her, excellent. If not, politely tell her you are concerned about germs and ask her to wash her hands, and if possible sanitize with an antiseptic gel, before she touches you.

Even if she is wearing gloves, insist she wash her hands, then put on new gloves.  Gloves are meant to protect the healthcare worker -- not you!  If the germs were present on her hands before she put the gloves on, then you are not protected at all since they may have transferred to the part of the glove that will touch you.

If you or a loved one will be hospitalized, then you’ll also want to kill germs that may be resident already on bed rails, phones or TV remotes, too.  Use antiseptic wipes or a can of antibacterial spray to lightly coat those surfaces.  If your doctor is ready to use her stethoscope on you, ask her to wipe it with an antiseptic first.

Afraid those workers will take offense?  Don’t be.  First, they realize they should be washing their hands and sanitizing anyway.  While they may be surprised you asked, it will help them understand you are serious, and they will respect you more.  Second, the concern about offending them should take a far back seat to your need and desire to stay healthy and safe.

With pandemic flu looming, and knowing that the next flu season is always either upon us, or just around the corner, sharp patients will help stop the spread of germs by insisting doctors and other healthcare workers wash their hands. They will take the extra smart step of washing their own hands frequently, too. And they will stay diligent during hospital visits to be sure they have the best chance of coming out of the hospital healthy, and not infected.


About the author

Trisha Torrey is Every Patient's Advocate. She is a newspaper columnist, radio talk show host, national speaker, and the guide to patient empowerment at

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