In the 21st century, doctors and healthcare professionals have developed revolutionary ways of protecting patient health.
From advanced sanitization methods to safely sterilizing tools and equipment, we’ve come a long way in making healthcare environments as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, patients and healthcare professionals are both fighting invisible foes: germs. In hospitals and healthcare facilities where many ill patients are receiving treatment at the same time, it is immensely challenging to prevent the spread of healthcare-associated infections, also known as HAIs.
Every year, HAIs affect a significant percentage of Americans who receive medical care. While most of these infections are not severe, in a worst-case scenario they can lead to major health problems or even death.
What are Healthcare-Associated Infections?
According to the federal Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP), healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are new infections that occur while a patient is receiving treatment for another health issue.
HAIs are not just a modern-day problem. In fact, they’ve affected patients throughout the entire history of medicine.
Thanks to universal sanitization practices, modern healthcare professionals have considerably decreased the number of HAIs patients experience during treatment.
However, patients will always be at risk during any sort of invasive procedure or when in an environment with an increased population of ill individuals. This is why healthcare providers are so diligent about sanitizing and disinfecting patient rooms, equipment, and common areas.
How Many People Are Affected?
Estimates of the number of Americans affected by healthcare-associated infections vary. The ODPHP reports that roughly 4% of all hospitalized individuals will develop a healthcare-associated infection. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate this number to be 5–10%.
Despite these differences, one thing is clear: HAIs impact over a million Americans each year. In fact, as many as 99,000 people die from healthcare-associated infections annually.
Where Can You Be Exposed to an HAI?
While public health statistics focus on people who develop HAIs during inpatient hospitalization, these infections can occur in a much broader range of settings.
Patients can contract healthcare-associated infections at kidney dialysis centers, ambulatory surgery centers, and other facilities that perform invasive procedures on an outpatient basis.
HAIs can also occur without a patient undergoing a procedure. In fact, HAIs occur in non-surgical settings such as doctor’s offices, clinics, physical rehabilitation facilities, and nursing homes, as well.
Which HAIs Are Most Common?
The same microorganisms responsible for producing other kinds of infectious disease trigger HAIs, as well. The most likely culprits include viruses, fungi, and bacteria.
Some healthcare-associated infections are more widespread than others. The ODPHO notes that the most common types of HAIs include:
- Surgical Site Infections (SSI)
- Pneumonia, often associated with ventilator use (VAP)
- Urinary tract infections related to a catheterization procedure (CAUTI)
- Infection with Clostridium difficile (C. diff) (CDI)
- Central-line associated bloodstream infection (CLABSI), commonly associated with the insertion of catheters into a primary vein
Am I at Risk?
There are numerous factors that affect an individual’s risk of developing an HAI. The chief risk factors include:
- Undergoing surgery
- Receiving medical treatment in a facility that doesn’t follow accepted guidelines for cleaning and hygiene, such as unlicensed or unaccredited facilities
- Exposure to a healthcare professional or another patient who has a contagious illness
- Undergoing a catheterization procedure via urinary tract or a blood vessel
- Tracheotomy, a procedure in which a tube is inserted into the trachea to improve breathing
- Presence of an open wound from a healthcare procedure or other trauma
- Compromised immune system due to cancer, diseases such as Hepatitis or HIV/AIDS, or other chronic immuno-supressing condition.
Another common but under-recognized cause of healthcare-associated infections is the misuse or overconsumption of antibiotic medications.
When antibiotics are used inappropriately, resistant microorganisms and bad bacteria are allowed to flourish in the absence of healthy bacteria. If the harmful microorganisms spread, they can cause severe infections that are resistant to many medical treatments.
The spread of MRSA is a prime example of this serious problem. When not discovered and controlled, this strain of bacteria can lead to life-threatening pneumonia and blood poisoning, sometimes referred to as sepsis. Unfortunately, MRSA resists the effects of antibiotics normally used to kill off Staph infections, making it more difficult to treat.
What Can We Do About HAIs?
We may not be able to eliminate all cases of healthcare-associated infection. However, experts agree that together we can prevent many HAIs. Healthcare professionals around the world are working diligently to significantly reduce the number of HAIs each year.
At GermBlast, we partner with healthcare providers to remove and destroy harmful microorganisms that cause healthcare-associated infections. We and our partners in the healthcare industry believe that it is possible to reach the goal of zero HAIs each year. Or, as we like to say, “Zero is possible!”
As a patient, you can do your part for prevention by understanding the risks, following best practices for good hygiene, and using prescribed antibiotic medications as intended. You can also discuss any concerns with your doctor prior to hospitalization or undergoing an invasive procedure.
Education and awareness are some of our most powerful tools in combating healthcare-associated infections. Together, we can achieve zero.
Have questions about healthcare-associated infections? Let us know in the comments below!