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Preventing Hospital-Acquired Infections: Patients Must Be “Safety Partners”

This is a guest post by Dr. Julia Hallisy.

Serious infections are becoming more prevalent and more virulent both in our hospitals and in our communities. The numbers are staggering: 1.7 million people will suffer from a hospital-acquired infections each year and almost 100,000 will die as a result.

When our late daughter, Kate, was diagnosed with an aggressive eye cancer in 1989 at five months of age, our life became consumed by doctor visits, MRI scans, radiation treatments, chemotherapy — and fear. My husband and I assumed that our fight was against the ravages of cancer, but almost eight years later we faced another life-threatening challenge we never counted on — a hospital-acquired infection. In 1997, Kate was infected with methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) in the operating room during a “routine” 30-minute biopsy procedure to confirm the reoccurrence of her cancer.

Kate’s hospital-acquired infection led to seven weeks in the pediatric intensive care unit on life support, the amputation of her right leg, kidney damage, and the loss of 70 percent of her lung capacity. While most infections are not this serious, the ones that are often lead to permanent loss of function and lifelong disabilities. In the years since Kate’s infection, resistant strains of the bacteria have emerged and now pose even more of a threat since they can be impossible to treat with our existing arsenal of antibiotics.

Patients afflicted with MRSA will often have to contend with the threat of recurrent infections for the rest of their lives. These patients live in constant fear of re-infection and often struggle with feelings of vulnerability and helplessness. Family members, friends, and co-workers may not fully understand the facts and have nowhere to turn for education about risks and prevention. Loved ones may worry unnecessarily for their own safety, which can cause them to distance themselves from someone who desperately needs their presence and support.

We have the knowledge and the ability to prevent a great number of these frightening infections, but the busy and fragmented system in which healthcare is delivered doesn’t encourage adequate infection control measures, and patients continue to be at risk. A significant part of the problem is that the public doesn’t receive timely and accurate information about the detection and prevention of MRSA and other dangerous organisms, and they aren’t engaged as “safety partners” in the quest to eliminate infections. Read more »

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