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Wednesday, July 02, 2008 9:00 AM

Navigating the Health Care System: Reducing the Risk of Health Care-associated Infections

Rand: When we go to a hospital, we expect to walk out stronger and healthier after treatment. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. Sometimes people get sicker in the hospital or other care settings from health care-associated infections. And people undergoing surgery can be at even higher risk for these types of infections. So what can you do to reduce your risk? AHRQ Director Dr. Carolyn Clancy is with us to offer her advice on how to stay safe if you’re having surgery.
Dr. Clancy, welcome.

Dr. Clancy: Thank you.

Rand: Let’s talk numbers. How common are health care-associated infections?

Dr. Clancy: Nearly 2 million patients experience a health care-associated infection every year in the United States. And about 88,000 people die from these infections. Research has shown that health care associated infections can lengthen the average hospital stay by two weeks. And the problem exists in other countries as well. In fact, the World Health Organization’s World Alliance for Patient Safety recently launched a new initiative called Safe Surgery Saves Lives. And we applaud this effort because it aims to improve the safety of surgical care, not only in the U.S., but also around the world.

Rand: What are the factors that increase a person’s risk for developing or a getting a health care-associated infection?

Dr. Clancy: Some people are more susceptible to a health care-associated infection, especially if they have weaker immune systems. For instance, premature babies, very sick children, the elderly and people with chronic medical conditions such as diabetes may be at a greater risk.

Rand: So what is the health care system doing then to reduce these risks and, in particular, make surgery safer?

Dr. Clancy: It may not be possible to completely eliminate all risks of health care-associated infections, but dramatic improvements are possible. One important step is tracking these infections so that we can look for common problems and find common solutions. More than half of all states have some kind of reporting system for infections and most of these are mandatory. Also, AHRQ is a member of the Surgical Care Quality Improvement Project that aims to encourage all health care staff to have ongoing training in providing quality care. This training would emphasize best practices, workflow and technologies that lead to higher quality, safer patient care.

Rand: Dr. Clancy, in the meantime, what are some steps that patients can take to reduce their own risks?

Dr. Clancy: A very simple step is making sure you wash your hands. And feel free to ask hospital staff to do the same thing before and after they provide you care, such as checking your bandages after a surgery. Also, tell your nurse if the bandages are not clean, dry and attached around any wounds. And ask relatives or friends who have colds or are not well to avoid visiting you during your hospital stay.

Rand: It sounds like patients really need to be pretty assertive.

Dr. Clancy: Patients need to feel empowered to manage their health and partner with their providers to ensure that they receive the highest quality care. I encourage patients to be their own advocate, to ask questions and to be involved in their care. You can reduce your risks and increase your own health care quality by taking an active role in your own health care.

Rand: Dr. Clancy, thanks for the advice.

Dr. Clancy: My pleasure.

Rand: How can you prepare for surgery? You can download a free AHRQ brochure called Having Surgery? What You Need to Know, available online at ahrq.gov/consumer.

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