Some hospitals have cut the risk of infections among patients, but too many have not. Here’s what you can do to keep from getting sicker if you’re hospitalized.
Check up on your hospital. When possible, research your hospital ahead of time and see how it compares with others in your area on infections, mortality rates, and other measures of patient safety.
Bring a friend or family member with you. You need someone who can act as your advocate, ask questions, and keep notes.
Keep a record. Take notes on what doctors and nurses say, which drugs you get, and answers to any questions you ask.
Insist on hand washing. Ask everyone who enters your room whether they’ve washed their hands with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is not enough to destroy certain bacteria, such as the dangerous C. diff.
Keep it clean. Bring your own bleach wipes for use on bed rails, doorknobs, the phone, and the TV remote, which can all harbor bacteria.
Cover wounds. Some hospitals examine incisions daily for infection, but opening the bandage exposes the area to bacteria. Newer techniques — like sealing the surgical site with skin glue and using waterproof dressings that stay on for one to three weeks without opening — reduce chances of infection.
Inquire whether IVs and catheters are still needed. Ask every day whether central lines, urinary catheters, or other tubes can be removed. The longer they’re left in place, the greater the infection risk.
Ask about antibiotics. For many surgeries, you get an antibiotic 60 minutes before the operation. But research suggests that the type of antibiotic used or the timing of when it’s administered is wrong in up to half of cases.
Postpone surgery if you have an infection. That increases your risk of developing a new infection and worsening an existing one. If you have any other type of infection — say, an abscessed tooth — then the surgery should be postponed, if possible, until it’s completely resolved.
Say no to razors. Removing hair from the surgical site is often necessary, but doing that with a regular razor can cause nicks that provide an opening for bacteria. Insist on an electric trimmer instead.
Question the need for heartburn drugs. Drugs such as omeprazole (Prilosec) increase the risk of intestinal infections and pneumonia, so consider stopping use of them before admission. Once in the hospital, ask whether you really need one.
Test for MRSA. Ask your surgeon to screen you for MRSA, a potentially deadly bacterium that’s resistant to antibiotics.
Watch for diarrhea. Get tested for C. diff if you have three loose stools within 24 hours. If you test positive, expect extra precautions.
Quit smoking, even temporarily. You won’t be allowed to smoke in the hospital, anyway, and stopping as long as possible beforehand cuts the risk of infection.
Wash up the night before. Ask about taking precautions before entering the hospital, such as bathing with special soap or using antiseptic wipes.