Only 6% of hospitals perform well in preventing the occurrence of infectious diseases according to a new Consumer Reports study compiled from data supplied to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) from 3,000 hospitals in the United States over a one-year period. Annually, more than 648,000 patients are diagnosed with hospital-acquired infections resulting in more than 75,000 deaths each year. This staggering figure is more than twice the number of people killed each year on American roads yet where is no uproar over the rampant spread of infectious disease, or a demand that hospitals do more to prevent infection?

Hospitals were evaluated based on how well they prevent five different infections including central line-acquired blood infections, catheter-acquired urinary tract infections, surgical site infections and antibiotic resistant superbugs like MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and C. diff. (Clostridium difficile).

Most of our local hospitals did not fare well in the infection prevention ratings including Jewish Hospital, Norton Hospital and University of Louisville Hospital in Louisville, and Floyd Memorial Hospital and Health Services in New Albany, Indiana, and Hardin Memorial Hospital in Elizabethtown. Some of the individual hospitals did better than others in specific categories but all scored poorly in the overall ratings.

One local exception was Baptist Hospital East, which did well in preventing MRSA, but also scored poorly in preventing C. diff.

Doris Peter, Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center Director explained that low ratings are “a sign that the hospitals are not doing enough to control those infections, that they need to do those things that we’ve asked them to do, and for C. difficile, that’s stopping overprescribing antibiotics, and for MRSA, it is proper hygiene within the hospital.”

Hospitals are the battlefield where superbugs are growing in intensity and it is the responsibility of each hospital, and each worker within the hospital, to follow all protocols for safety and cleanliness to help prevent the spread of infection. As Dr. Tom Frieden, M.D., Director of the CDC explained, “Hospitals can be hot spots for infections and can sometimes amplify spread. Patients with serious infections are near sick and vulnerable patients—all cared for by the same health care workers sometimes using shared equipment.”

In a written statement disputing the dire findings of the Consumer Reports, the American Hospital Association argued that the number of infectious diseases reported do not tell the whole story because some hospitals are doing more testing than others to detect infectious disease and help prevent infection. “Hospitals that are actually doing more to prevent infections could appear to be doing worse in this analysis.”

Consumer Reports recommendations to help prevent the spread of infectious disease:

  • Healthcare workers must always wash their hands and follow cleanliness standards. The simplest things sometimes yield the greatest results and in this case, regular hand washing is critical and is especially true for healthcare workers. Many infectious diseases such as MRSA and C. diff can live on a surface for several days and are, therefore, easily transmitted between patients from a shared medical device, piece of diagnostic equipment, catheter or tube. Hospitals must have strict cleanliness standards in place and require health care workers to strictly follow protocol for wearing gloves, masks and hospital gowns when working with a patient who has an infectious disease.
  • Avoid anti-biotic overuse. Many infectious diseases can be traced back to the overuse of antibiotics. “Superbugs” become immune to antibiotics because they are used so frequently and destroy any protective bacteria a  patient may have to fight infection. Consumer Reports also recommends that hospitals initiate their own antibiotic stewardship program keeping a diligent record of how many antibiotics are used and for what condition.
  • Report the rate of infectious disease. Hospitals should be required to report the occurrence infectious disease to state and national officials, as well as current and prospective patients. In time of emergency, patients often do not have a choice of hospitals, but patients scheduling outpatient surgery or other non-emergency procedures do have a choice, and if provided information about infection prevention rates, may choose to wait or choose another health care facility with a better rate of infectious disease prevention.
  • Financial responsibility if rules are not followed. Hospitals and health care institutions should be held financially responsible if they do not follow cleanliness and reporting  requirements so a financial incentive exists to “do the right thing”.

What can you do to protect yourself against infectious disease when you are a patient or a visitor in a hospital or healthcare facility?

Consumer Reports Health Ratings Center Director Doris Peter, Ph.D. warned, “Hospitals need to stop infecting their patients. Until they do, patients need to be on high alert whenever they enter a hospital, even as visitors.”

  • Wash your hands regularly and insist that everyone who comes into your room washes their hands, whether they are visitors or healthcare workers.
  • Question the use of antibiotics. Do not demand an antibiotic when one is not indicated, and question your doctor if one is prescribed. Is there another medicine that could be used rather than an antibiotic? If not, insist on the lowest dosage, for the shortest amount of time, and take all medicine as prescribed so you do not take multiple rounds of medicine for the same issue, thereby reducing your immunity.
  • Insist on cleanliness in your room and from all health care workers involved in your care.
  • Know your rights as a patient when it comes to hygiene and safety. You have the right to ask a health care worker to wash their hands before they do anything related to your care.
  • Use bleach wipes on surfaces such as bed rails, toilet seat, TV remote, or anything that could transmit disease.
  • Consider MRSA nasal testing.
  • While in the hospital, reject the use of razors that could nick or cut skin providing an opening for infection to enter the body.
  • Be cautious in using heartburn drugs like Nexium and Prilosec that can increase your chances of developing C. diff.

Once you’ve been discharged from the hospital, watch for potential warning signs of infectious disease like fever, diarrhea, increasing pain, or infection coming from an incision site. Call your doctor and seek immediate medical attention if you suffer from any of these symptoms.

If hospitals and healthcare facilities fail to improve their inadequate infection prevention methods, odds are against consumers when it comes to avoiding hospital-acquired infectious disease. If you or a loved one has to be in a hospital, healthcare or long-term facility, we recommend a pro-active approach: take steps to limit your exposure to infectious disease, always ask questions of doctors and healthcare workers, and demand safety and cleanliness for yourself and your loved ones.