During the last weeks, as Americans watched health care workers don protective equipment before treating patients in West Africa with Ebola, I was donning my own protective garb—a yellow hospital gown and purple gloves—so that I could visit a friend in the hospital. She had
a hospital-acquired infection. When I left the room I deposited the gown in a special bin, threw away the gloves, and washed my hands with soap and water since the C. diff bacteria isn’t killed by alcohol hand gel. When I returned to the room, I washed, gowned and gloved once again. I wasn’t protecting myself; I was protecting the other patients on the floor who were vulnerable to infection.
Hospital Acquired Infections (HAIs) can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were an estimated 722,000 HAIs in 2011. A recent piece in the Journal Health Affairs, noted that, "approximately one out of every 25 people who are hospitalized contracts a healthcare-associated infection (HAI). There were an estimated 98,987 deaths due to HAIs in 2002, the last year an official estimate was released." HAIs can include central-line associated blood stream infections, catheter-associated urinarytract infections, surgical site infections, and ventilator-associated pneumonia, as well diseases and organisms acquired in healthcare settings.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services is engaged in a vigorous effort to encourage hospitals to prevent these infections, which can lead to readmissions, long-recoveries, disability and death. There are incentives for lowering the rates of infection and there is careful monitoring of the problem. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Public Health monitors infections and promotes efforts to decrease them. Published reports with facility-specific rates of infection detailed can be found here. The federal government also monitors hospitals through the Medicare program. Data on individual hospitals, including information on readmissions, complications, and deaths, can be found here. A list of actions funded by the Affordable Care Act to promote state-based efforts to control HAIs can be found here.
Media reports may draw our attention to dramatic stories, like Ebola, but we need to be aware of the threats we are much more likely to encounter, such as HAIs. Human beings will always confront infectious diseases and dangerous organisms. We must be prepared to take vigorous action to contain them, whether sending health workers overseas to fight deadly diseases, monitoring our institutional efforts at home and instituting new procedures for infection control, or taking proper precautions when we visit friends and family members in our local hospitals.