Healthcare News & Insights

Surprising source of bacteria & infections in hospitals

A great deal of effort’s been put into making sure hospitals avoid spreading germs that cause deadly infections in patients. But some of the bacteria may not actually originate behind hospital walls, which could change how facilities approach infection prevention down the line. 

To improve hospitals’ infection prevention efforts, some infection specialists are trying to pin down exactly how germs are spread in hospitals. A recent study was designed to try and figure it out, and the results were published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.

Before and after

Per an article from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, as part of the study, a research team worked in a brand-new hospital building for the University of Chicago.

Before it opened, team members talked to staff so they could get an idea of how patients would move through the facility, including exits and entrances.

They also took swabs of every hospital surface before patents were allowed inside. The swabs gave them an idea of how many germs existed on surfaces before the hospital started accepting new patients. At the beginning of the experiment, hospital surfaces were relatively free from germs.

Once patients started using the facility, researchers noticed that certain areas started developing a high concentration of bacteria that can contribute to the spread of superbugs in a facility, including staphylococcus and streptococcus. Computer mice, phones and counter tops were specific places where bacteria commonly lurked.

Over the next year, researchers swabbed various areas in the hospital, along with the skin and clothing of many clinical staffers. They also swabbed patients so they could compare their “microbial profile,” or the bacteria they carried on their bodies, upon admission to that at discharge.

Out of all the surfaces in the hospital, bedrails stood out as the objects that most often picked up any bacteria a person carried into the hospital. Bacteria from each patient would make its way onto the bedrail, where it would stay indefinitely unless the bed was sterilized well.

A bed that’s not cleaned thoroughly can be dangerous for many reasons. Example: Previous research has shown that patients who use a bed after the previous occupant has taken antibiotics are more likely to develop C. diff  – likely because antibiotics can cause C. diff spores to multiply and stick to bedrails and other areas of the room.

Where germs may come from

Researchers also looked at patients who developed infections in the hospital to find out the root causes of their condition. Although they suspected that patients would be sickened from germs that were present in their hospital rooms (either on bedrails or other surfaces), that wasn’t the case.

In fact, none of the specific bacteria that made each patient ill were found in their rooms, or on the doctors and nurses who treated them.

Researchers speculate that some of these bacteria could actually be in patients’ bodies before admission to the hospital. So the germs lurking in hospitals may not be as dangerous to patients’ health as the ones they’re bringing in with them.

This means facilities may have to take a different approach to patients when admitted, treating patients with probiotic and antibiotic drugs (while being careful to only prescribe antibiotics when necessary). It’s still important for hospitals to thoroughly sterilize patient rooms and all areas where patients congregate regularly, but being proactive about neutralizing the threat of patients’ existing bacteria could be even more beneficial to their health.

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