The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 1 in 20 U.S. hospital patients contracts an infection while hospitalized.
To stop such infections before they start, local hospitals have developed protocols for staff, patients and visitors that emphasize the "three C's."
"Clean your hands, cover your cough and contain your germs," is how Elisa Hill, R.N., manager of infection prevention at St. John's Hospital, describes these rules of thumb.
The first "C" - cleaning hands - may be the most effective anti-infection measure of all since many bacteria and viruses are spread through touching other people or touching objects such as door handles.
"Washing hands is the single most important thing they (hospital staff) can do to protect patients," said Karen Trimberger, R.N., director of infection prevention and control at Memorial Medical Center. "It is one of the biggest things we promote."
Trimberger said healthy visitors and incoming patients may not realize that they carry numerous viruses and bacteria such as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, that can be dangerous to persons who are more vulnerable to infection. Patients most at risk for infection in hospitals, according to the CDC, include infants and young children; the elderly; persons with wounds that have not yet healed or inserted IVs, catheters and other devices; and persons with diabetes or other chronic conditions that slow healing or compromise immunity.
"If you are healthy, (MRSA) is not a problem, but when you are immunity compromised it becomes a problem," she said. "It is resistant to antibiotics."
Hand sanitizer dispensers are also posted inside and outside patient rooms to encourage staff and visitors to clean hands when entering or leaving, Trimberger added. Even so, applying hand sanitizer does not replace proper washing but supplements it.
Proper hand-washing technique is also important; Trimberger said hands should be washed with soap and warm water for at least 15 seconds before drying. (Some people sing "Happy Birthday" or recite a memorized passage to ensure they wash their hands for a sufficient length of time.)
Vaccination against seasonal influenza is also a cornerstone of local prevention efforts. The Hospital Sisters Health System, which includes St. John's, announced recently that all employees will be required to get flu vaccinations (provided free of charge) or else wear masks at all times while working. Memorial and other local hospitals also provide flu shots free of charge to employees although they are not required to get the shots.
The masks are one means of containing coughs and sneezes so that germs do not spread. For visitors and patients, Hill said that coughing into the crook of the elbow (if a handkerchief or tissue is not at hand) is preferable to using one's hands to cover a cough, since the latter simply spreads germs to the hands.
As for containing one's germs, Hill and Trimberger strongly discourage hospital visits by people who are not feeling well, especially if they have a cough or fever. A better way to cheer up a hospitalized friend or relative in those circumstances would be through a phone call, an email, or a written or emailed get-well card, Hill said.
Hill added that in particularly dangerous circumstances, such as during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza, parts of St. John's may be closed to all visitors and replaced with virtual visitation via webcam or other electronic means, Hill said.
"We did close down visiting in our children's hospital for a time (during the H1N1 outbreak) but we did virtual visitation" for visitors other than parents, she added.
Some other suggested measures from local hospitals that can reduce the chance of infection for persons anticipating a hospital stay or surgery include:
Tips from CDC
The CDC also offers these additional tips to prevent hospital-acquired infections: