Surviving hospital: infections

The last thing you need from a hospital stay is to contract a preventable infection.
 
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01 .Infections in hospitals

Sick in hospital

If you need to spend time in a hospital, the last thing you want is to come out sicker than when you went in. It’s estimated that 200,000 hospital-acquired infections are caught by patients in Australian hospitals each year.

These can have serious consequences, including repeat surgery or even fatalities – as well as costing Australia $1bn a year. The hospital you go to is an important factor in reducing your chances of infection. There are huge differences between similar hospitals in infection rates for a potentially deadly staph infection. Some had infection rates up to 15 times higher than the best-performing hospitals in 2011-12.

Check up on rates

Check infection rates for major hospitals on our hospital map. You can also see information on all public and many private hospitals at myhospitals.gov.au, while a handy tool from health fund HCF draws on the data from this government site and allows you to compare up to 10 hospitals at once. Before you go into hospital, take a look at our checklist for protecting yourself.

Golden staph:a strain on the system

Golden staph (Staphylococcus aureus) is a quite common bacteria, and normally harmless. About two to three out of every 10 people carry it on their skin or in their noses. But there are some alarming facts:

  • If it enters the body through an open wound or an intravenous drip, it can cause a serious blood infection called Staphylococcus aureus bacteraemia (SAB).
  • Estimates suggest at least 20% of people who contract SAB will die from it or a related cause.
  • Some strains of the bacteria are resistant to common antibiotics. Called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), these are the most difficult to treat.
  • In 2011-12, almost a quarter of SAB infections in Australian public hospitals were antibiotic-resistant strains.
  • People with a suppressed immune system, such as those with cancer, burns victims and the very young or very old, are at higher risk of contracting SAB.

Steps have been taken to improve SAB infection rates. They’re now a performance indicator for hospitals, with a target for no more than two cases per 10,000 bed days (the length of stay of a patient in hospital). And this seems to have had an effect: in 2011-12 the national average was 0.9% per 10,000 bed days, down from 1.1% in 2010-11. 

Following this, the COAG Reform Council recommended that a new, lower benchmark be set. Hopefully, this will come as a wake-up call to hospitals that are performing well below the current standards.

How infections in hospital are caused

In 2011–12, there were 1734 cases of SAB reported in Australian public hospitals. Differences in SAB infection rates between hospitals are influenced by a number of factors, such as their size and the type of patients they treat (those treating more vulnerable patients could have a higher infection rate). SAB and other infections are usually caused by poorly sterilised or handled surgical instruments, catheters or needles – or they can come from the hands of doctors or other health-care workers.

“The rates of infection varied markedly between different public hospitals, even within groups of similar hospitals,” says a recent publication by the National Health Performance Authority. “This suggests there may be opportunities at a number of hospitals to reduce infection rates, improve detection and infection reporting systems, or a combination of both.” 

Other risks

Patients could also be put at risk by other factors, according to NSW Health Services Union Secretary, Gerard Hayes. “We’ve been pushed to take industrial action to protect cleaning jobs at multiple Sydney hospitals in the past few months. The reality is that cleaners are just as crucial to patient health as doctors and nurses. If cleaning jobs keep getting cut, we will see staph outbreaks.”

Inadequate cleaning was linked to a vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus infection outbreak at the Royal Perth Hospital in 2001 that affected 172 patients.

For more information on health issues and medical conditions, see our Safety section, under General health.

 
 

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Staph infection stats

Checklist

  • Insist on hand washing. Anyone who touches you, including your visitors, should wash their hands with soap and water or use a hospital grade alcohol-based hand sanitiser. Don’t hesitate to say, “I’m sorry, but I didn’t see you wash your hands. Would you mind doing it again?”
  • Don’t let visitors sit on your bed.
  • If friends or relatives are sick, ask them not to visit.
  • Practice good hygiene yourself If possible have a shower before surgery, and wash your hands frequently.
  • Every day ask if catheters, ventilators, or other tubes can be removed. The risk of infection increases significantly the longer they’re left in place.
  • Don’t manipulate or fiddle with lines and catheters If you notice anything such as pain, swelling, leakage or irritation notify your nurse or doctor immediately.

CHOICE verdict

There’s no reason to panic – the total number of preventable infections is still small. Nevertheless, they continue to occur in Australian hospitals. Inform yourself about the procedure you’re undergoing in hospital, and never be afraid to speak up and make health care professionals accountable for their hygiene practices.

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