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Hospitals and Doctor Offices Can be Hazardous Places

It made headlines when two nurses in Dallas became ill while caring for the country’s first Ebola patient. Far less publicized and far more common is how often patients come down with life-threatening illnesses after being admitted to the hospital for something else.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one out of every 25 hospitalized patients picks up a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). Also referred to as nosocomial or hospital-acquired infections, HAIs are infections that patients acquire while receiving treatment for another condition.

Time spent in any health care setting – hospitals, doctor offices, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, etc. – can expose patients, many of whom are already in weakened conditions, to a host of bacteria, fungi and viruses capable of causing numerous ailments. These range from minor colds to life-threatening pneumonia, gastrointestinal, urinary tract, blood stream and surgical site infections. Medical devices such as catheters and ventilators make it possible for germs to easily enter the body, leaving patients vulnerable to deadly infections including methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and sepsis. These and other HAIs lengthen hospital stays, increase health care costs and are responsible for at least 75,000 deaths every year.

Clostridium difficile infection (C.diff), a contagious and sometimes fatal bacterial illness that causes severe diarrhea, is an example of an HAI that has been linked to overuse of antibiotics. According to a CDC study, half of people hospitalized receive antibiotics. These drugs are life-saving medications, but they can also wipe out flora in the body that is essential for good health. This can make it possible for unhealthy bacteria like C.diff, which kills 14,000 people in the U.S. every year, to flourish. Furthermore, when over-prescribed or inappropriately prescribed (as in stronger than necessary), antibiotics contribute to C.diff and other dangerous bacteria becoming drug resistant. Improving the way antibiotics are prescribed could help reduce incidences of C. diff and other HAIs.

HAIs can be further minimized with better hand hygiene on the part of health care workers. Whether it is because they are rushing to see all of their assigned patients or because there isn’t convenient access, many health care workers do not always adequately disinfect their hands and examination tools like stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs between patients. Good hand hygiene, which includes proper hand washing and the use of alcohol-based hand sanitizer, is one of the most important weapons in HAI prevention.

Whether you are a patient in a hospital or a doctor’s office, make sure staff members have disinfected their hands and examination tools before they examine you. If you are hospitalized, ask your visitors to disinfect their hands before they enter your room. Also, be sure to wash your hands after you are seen.

The LHSFNA’s Precautions Against Blood-borne Pathogens Health Alert can help protect Laborers from HAIs. Order this and other health and safety materials through the online Publications Catalogue at

Additional tips for preventing HAIs are also on the CDC website.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]

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