When we have immediate concerns about our health, many of us think of hospitals as a natural outlet to cure what ails us. However, hospitals are increasingly contending with infections that may expose patients to further risk while within their walls.
According to research published this summer in the journal Infection, Disease and Health, as many as 165,000 Australians per year contract infections within the walls of the country’s hospitals.
Analysing studies on hospital-acquired infections in Australia from 2010-2016, researchers found that the most commonly transmitted infections include urinary tract, staph, surgical site, and, in stroke patients, respiratory. These rates are consistent with those in New Zealand and other developed countries, where it is estimated that about 10 per cent of patient admitted to hospital acquire a healthcare-related infection.
For vulnerable patients with already weakened immune systems, exposure to these types of infections can pose a significant health risk. Not only that, in many cases the spread of infections translates to longer hospital stays and greater use of valuable resources, pressure that hospitals can’t afford. In the case of urinary tract infections, that means an additional 380,600 days of public hospital bed use each year in Australia. According to the Health Quality & Safety Commission New Zealand, the cost associated with central line associated bacteraemia (CLAB) infections is estimated between $20,000 and $54,000.
While these findings may be surprising, the negative outcomes of HAIs are not news. In 2001, the Australian Infection Control Association Expert Working Group estimated that there may be as many as 150,000 HAIs contributing to 7,000 deaths each year in Western Australia. The cost of these infections at amounts to at least $95 million annually.
What are the next steps?
Between 5-10% of patients admitted to an Australian hospital acquire an infection. Research suggests that hospital acquired infection (HAI) surveillance is the best way to prevent this from happening, and programs from the United States and Europe are hard at work to prove it.
In the US, 62 hospitals voluntarily participated in the Centers for Disease Control's National Healthcare Safety Network, resulting in a decrease in urinary tract respiratory tract, and bloodstream infections monitored in intensive care units between 1990 and 1999.
Meanwhile, hospitals in Europe have seen significant reductions of infections after implementing HAI surveillance programs, including a 24-57% reduction in surgical site infections (SSI) in the Netherlands and Denmark, 30% reduction of SSI in France.
Australia and New Zealand have already been working on preventative measures with a national hand hygiene initiative, government funded national strategy on the growing resistance to antibiotics and projects targeting the reduction of certain healthcare-acquired infections. However, according to the Infection, Disease and Health study’s researchers, a national infection surveillance program in Australia is still needed.
While reducing the number of HAIs is a complicated challenge, surveillance can help drastically reduce numbers of preventable HAIs – which includes an estimated 70% of catheter-associated bloodstream and catheter-associated urinary tract infections.
Through a surveillance program, hospitals can identify the existing rates of infection, detect trends and sentinel events and properly employ prevention and intervention measures. And while surveillance cannot eliminate HAIs, it can help hospitals take a big step to ensuring healthier environments for their staff and patients.