You go to the hospital when you are sick or injured and need care. The last thing you expect is that the hospital will make you sicker. But for up to 10 percent of hospital patients, that's exactly what happens.
It turns out that hospitals are a breeding ground for infections -- many of which are becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that each year about 1.7 million patients get a hospital acquired infection (HAI). Some sources, including RID, a not-for-profit organization founded to foster awareness and prevention of hospital infections, think the number is much higher. It notes that the instance of one particularly nasty hospital infection, MRSA, a superbug that resists antibiotics, has grown from fewer than 2,000 reported cases in 1993 to 368,000 in 2005. But no matter what number you go by, it is clear that HAIs are a serious problem. Hospitals are beginning to devote more resources to fighting HAIs, but meanwhile there are things you can do to help protect yourself.
What you can do
Sometimes it helps to be your own best advocate in health matters. But if you're not feeling well enough to take charge, ask a trusted friend or relative to spend time in the hospital with you and be your advocate. Here are things you or your advocate should keep in mind:
Make sure doctors and nurses wash their hands before examining you -- and don't be afraid to remind them if they don't. The CDC cites hand washing as the single most effective way to control the spread of disease.
Wash your own hands carefully after using the bathroom or handling soiled materials: Scrub for at least 15 seconds with warm, soapy water.
If you're receiving fluids through an intravenous catheter, let your nurse know if the dressing around it becomes wet or soiled.
Infections from urinary catheters are common, so these dressings should be clean and dry, and the catheter should not remain in longer than necessary.
Keep an eye on wound dressings and drainage tubes, and let your nurse know if they become loose or wet.
Ask friends and family not to visit if they're feeling ill.
If you need surgery and are overweight, losing a few pounds before you go in the hospital can help reduce your risk of post-surgery infection.
If you have diabetes, keep a sharp eye on your blood sugar. High blood sugar increases your risk of infection. Work with your doctor to control your blood sugar before, during, and after your hospital stay.
Don't be afraid to ask questions. Understanding your treatment plan will make it easier for you to be involved in your own recovery.
If you smoke, there's no better time to stop. Smoking can increase your risk of developing a lung infection and may hamper your healing abilities.
Trying to take steps to stay as healthy as possible while you're in the hospital may seem like a challenge when you're not feeling your best. But remember that you are an important part of your medical team, and whatever you can do to speed the healing process -- and prevent infections -- is definitely worth the effort.
How Many Infections: What You Need to Know About Hospital Infections. Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.
Frequently Asked Questions. How widespread is the problem of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs)? National Conference of State Legislatures.
Preventing Infections in the Hospital What You as a Patient Can Do. National Patient Safety Foundation.
Why is handwashing important? CDC Division of Media Relations. March 6, 2000.
Richard Sim, RN, MBA. Facts on Hospital Infections. Infectionctrl-Online.
Terri Whitmore-Howard, MT, MPH, CIC. Hospitals take aim at staph, other infections. The Oak Ridger. Last updated August 7, 2002.
Hospital Infections Statistics. AskLynnRn.
Centers for Disease Control. Estimates of Healthcare-Associated Infections. May 2007.