By Russell H. Greenfield, MD
Sometimes the most commonly used tools for stopping infections are not quite enough to combat the ongoing struggle against hospital-acquired infections. As outlined in the recent Consumer Reports article, “Deadly hospital infections are still too common,” prevention measures such as hand hygiene, wound care and limiting use of central lines and urinary catheters are hugely important. But infection control can and should go far beyond these steps. One million Americans suffer from hospital-acquired infections each year – with a mortality rate of 100,000 per year and a price tag many times that, healthcare facilities must take advantage of every available tool to control and reduce the spread of disease.
Sterilized instruments, clean bedding, gloves and masks, regular handwashing, and the isolation of highly contagious patients — all of these add up to the protective regimen that must be maintained to keep hospitals from becoming ground zero for epidemics in the United States. Despite these well-known and standardized procedures, many hospital-acquired infections can still be spread through overlooked or hard-to-wash surfaces like bed linens, privacy curtains and upholstered waiting room chairs; or by pure and simple human error.
There are many companies working on unglamorous but critical innovations that can help hospitals reduce infection rates.
In trials, handwashing monitors — electronic devices that can detect how often doctors and nurses wash their hands — have been shown to significantly reduce hospital infections. Antimicrobial textiles — high-tech fabrics that may help kill harmful pathogens before they can spread — if put into wide use, have the potential to help stop diseases from gaining a foothold in hospitals and health clinics across the world. A recent University of Arizona study conducted by noted microbiologist Dr. Charles Gerba just revealed that silver-embedded fabrics made by PurThread Technologies kill 99.99 percent of such dangerous bacteria as MRSA, Salmonella, and E. coli within four hours of contact.
Infection control is a scientific and technological marvel that is continuously being improved, and its next evolution will likely come about from more targeted research and the patient adaptation of new technologies. We must continue to support world-class research into new drugs and vaccines, while remaining grateful for the little things that strengthen our healthcare system, making it more resilient in the face of even the most challenging diseases. And the healthcare industry must stay apprised and be receptive to these seemingly small innovations –they may make the biggest difference in helping prevent hospital-acquired infections.
Russell H. Greenfield, MD, is a practitioner of integrative medicine in North Carolina and medical director for PurThread Technologies.