MRSA, C.Diff, VRE, CRE - Hospital Acquired Infections

From Hospitals to the Community, Superbugs Are Everywhere

Hospital care is as much about communication as it is about procedures.
Hospital care is as much about communication as it is about procedures.

No discussion of patient safety would be complete without covering the growth of superbugs: those infectious organisms that make patients sick and may even cause death. They are called superbugs because it's very difficult to kill them with existing drugs, meaning, it's very difficult to treat patients who get sick from them.

They are known by names such as:

Natural, but Life Threatening

Perhaps surprisingly, some of these organisms are present naturally in our environment without making healthy people sick. For example, about one-third of people are "colonized" with the bacteria staph aureus, meaning it lives on the skin in the noses of people without causing disease. Approximately one percent of people are colonized with the antibiotic-resistant form of staph aureus (known as MRSA.) The percentage is higher for people who have been recently hospitalized.

C. Diff lives all around us, too, including in human digestive systems. It won't cause problems until the person begins to take antibiotics for another illness. At that point the C. Diff can colonize out of control making the infected person much sicker.

Superbugs are invisible and can survive on surfaces for up to three days. That means that they can be transferred when one infected person simply touches another, or when the patient touches something on which the pathogen resides like a stethoscope, a TV remote, a computer mouse, or shared athletic equipment.

HAIs - Hospital-Acquired (Nosocomial) Infections

An estimated 1.7 million Americans acquire nosocomial infections each year. They are admitted to the hospital injured, debilitated or sick, their immune systems compromised, making them easily susceptible to a colonized infection. Others in the hospital, some sick and others healthy, introduce the pathogen by touching the patient. The superbug takes hold and begins growing out of control.

Infectious pathogens find easy access to the bloodstream of a patient with an open wound from injury or surgery. Once the germs enter the bloodstream, the patient is said to have sepsis or septicemia. Patients sick from another disease or condition may have a compromised immune system, making them too weak to fight off a superbug. The elderly are especially susceptible because their systems may be fragile due to their age.

Once the patient is infected, the hospital stay is extended, sometimes for months. In some cases, the infection can be controlled enough so the patient can eventually leave the hospital. But many patients aren't so lucky. Of the 1.7 million Americans who are infected in hospitals each year, at least 99,000 of them die from those infections.

In fact, because many of these infections are preventable, and because there are so many of them, in 2008 Medicare determined they would no longer pay hospitals for treating patients who had acquired infections during their hospital stay. Many insurers have followed suit.

How Does One Avoid Infection?

There are a number of additional steps for patients to take when they are serious about preventing hospital-acquired infections.

Here is information about individual infection possibilities:

Additional Resources for Hospital-Acquired Infections:

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