When it comes to germs, hospitals don’t get a clean bill of health. Germs can lurk in a number of places—you might suspect the laundry facility, or perhaps the cafeteria. Or you might even worry about the operating room. But the dirtiest spots in the hospital aren’t where you might expect, says infection prevention consultant Dr. Carol McLay. “The 10 germiest places in a hospital are at the end of your health care worker’s hands,” says McLay, chair of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC)’s communications committee.
The fingers on those healing hands frequently become contaminated with bacteria and viruses that can be spread to you, if strict hygiene measures aren’t observed. That is, if a nurse or technician or doctor touches something that’s contaminated—a doorknob or elevator button, for instance—and then touches a patient without thoroughly washing or disinfecting their hands, the patient is at risk for contracting an infection.
RELATED: The Grossest Spot In Your Office
Unfortunately, infections do spread in this manner fairly frequently. Approximately one out of every 20 patients who visits the hospital will contract a hospital-acquired infection, or HAI, including central line bloodstream infections and ventilator-associated pneumonia. And HAIs are costly for both insurers and hospitals—between $28 billion and $45 billion annually. Not only that, but 99,000 people die from HAIs each year.
“And it’s the human beings that are the source of most of the germs that can hurt you,” says Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the department of preventive medicine at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
While you can’t control certain aspects of your care when you may be vulnerable to contracting an infection—you can’t insert your own catheter or IV, for example—you can take some steps to reduce your own exposure.
What You Can Do
BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle…of hand sanitizer, that is. Put it next to your bed and ask everyone to use it, suggests McLay.
Wipe down “high-touch” surfaces. It can’t hurt to wipe down the high-touch surfaces in your room—the bed rails, the nurse’s call button, the phone, etc., with disinfecting wipes. And try to avoid directly touching things like grimy elevator buttons whenever possible.
Ask people to wash their hands. When someone comes to visit you, they may be bringing germs along with that bouquet of flowers. (Remember the elevator buttons?) Point them toward the sink as soon as they arrive. Or ask them to use your bottle of hand sanitizer gel or the gel in the hand hygiene station at the entrance to most hospital rooms.
Speak up. Hospital personnel are supposed to use hand sanitizer gel when they enter a room, so watch them to make sure they are following proper sanitation practices. If they don’t, it’s your right to speak up. “If you see someone who has omitted that ritual, please say, ‘Excuse me, you must have forgotten to use the hand hygiene,” says Schaffner. And watch your caregivers when they perform various procedures or change dressings to make sure they’re following hand hygiene guidelines then, too.
What Visitors and Caregivers Can Do
Don’t visit if you’re sick. APIC recommends just staying home if you are already sick. Your friend or loved one in the hospital will appreciate it, as will everyone else who won’t be exposed to whatever germs have laid you low.
Get vaccinated. Dr. Schaffner strongly encourages everyone to get an influenza vaccination each year. If you’re visiting someone in the hospital and haven’t had a flu shot, you could expose people who are already fragile. “You are potentially a hazard for anyone around you,” he says.