With cold and flu season upon us, it's more important than ever to employ good practices to control the spread of infections and avoid illness.
"We need to be proactive not only to keep ourselves healthy, but to avoid transmitting illness if we're sick," said Eileen Finerty, RN, MS, CIC, nursing director for infection control and occupational health at Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS) in Manhattan.
Hospital for Special Surgery has one of the lowest infection rates of any hospital in the country and was recently commended by the New York State Department of Health for its low infection rate in patients undergoing hip replacement. The overall infection rate refers to all infections acquired by patients in the hospital, not only viruses such as those that cause the flu.
Infection control in the healthcare setting is critical. Nationwide, hospital-acquired infections result in 100,000 deaths each year.
"We emphasize infection control as a best practice," said Thomas P. Sculco, MD, surgeon-in-chief at HSS, "and strive to maintain it at every level of patient care from washing hands to a clean and safe environment for our patients in the operating room and the entire hospital."
HSS employs a combination of infection-control measures, according to Finerty. Some are highly sophisticated and others are basic good practices. Strategies used by the hospital to keep germs in check can be adapted for use at home and in everyday life, according to Finerty. These practices include:
1. Good hand hygiene using sanitizers.
Hospital: Hand sanitizers located all around the hospital have a sensor that dispenses foam without the need to touch it. The sensor detects hand motion and automatically releases foam.
What everyone can do: Sanitize hands frequently using an alcohol-based liquid hand cleaner. Use about a tablespoon, rub it into your hands and let it dry. Do not wipe it off. Ms. Finerty carries a hand sanitizer in her purse at all times.
2. Frequent handwashing.
Hospital: Hospital staff members are instructed to wash their hands often. Signs around the hospital say: "Good Hand Hygiene Saves Lives."
What everyone can do: Wash your hands for at least 15 seconds. You can sing "Happy Birthday" to get an idea of how long it should take. Work up a good lather and rub your hands together.
3. Good ventilation.
Hospital: Clean air in operating rooms and the use of special panels to direct air flow to maintain the most sterile environment possible for the patient.
What everyone can do: Open the windows and let in some fresh air to ensure adequate ventilation. A stagnant, stuffy environment causes germs to re-circulate around the house.
4. Controlling the spread of germs.
Hospital: The entire staff is trained in infection-control measures, such as coughing into a tissue and not into one's hand. Boxes of tissues are located throughout the hospital. Staff members are encouraged to stay home if they have a contagious illness.
What everyone can do: Carry tissues and dispose of them properly and immediately after coughing or sneezing. Then wash your hands or use a hand sanitizer. You can also cough into your sleeve to avoid getting germs on your hand that can later be spread.
In general, when you're outside or at work, or if you have come in contact with a sick person, avoid touching your face. Germs on your hand get you sick when they enter your body through your eyes, nose or mouth, or through a break in the skin. Don't go to work if you're sick.
5. Cleaning and disinfecting.
Hospital: HSS housekeeping staff is especially diligent about cleaning. The routine entails mopping, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces, getting into cracks and crevices where bacteria can grow.
What everyone can do: Make it a habit to clean and disinfect surfaces, especially in the kitchen and bathroom. Be especially wary about kitchen sponges, which can harbor large amounts of bacteria. "When in doubt, throw it out," Finerty advises. If someone in the household is sick, disinfect high touch personal items like phones and other equipment around the house.
6. Flu shots.
Hospital: All staff are encouraged to get a flu shot, and the hospital has a high rate of compliance.
What everyone can do: Get a flu shot to lower the possibility of getting sick. It protects you and those around you.
7. A separate room.
Hospital: Patients who have a contagious infection are given a private room.
What everyone can do: When a family member is sick, keep his belongings separate, give him a separate trash bag for his tissues and dispose of them properly, and maintain a sanitary environment. If you're outside and notice someone who looks ill, try to stay at least three feet away from him. An uncovered cough can spray droplets and germs three feet or more into the air.
8. Diligence and good habits.
Hospital: Signs, staff training and hand sanitizers around the facility remind HSS employees of the importance of proper hygiene.
What everyone can do: Remember to maintain good practices and develop beneficial habits that will help keep you and those around you healthy.