Myth: Hospitals Keep You Safe from Germs

ByABC News

Oct. 14, 2005 — -- There's a deadly threat hiding inside America's hospitals. What's even scarier, your hospital is probably keeping it a secret.

Maureen Daly's mother was a healthy 63-year-old woman when she had surgery to fix a broken shoulder. However, after being admitted to the hospital, Daly's mother got an infection that left her immobilized on a respirator. Daly was told that life-threatening germs are an inevitable fact of hospital life.

Daly was shocked. "I cannot accept that it would be a fact of life that you can walk into a hospital with a broken shoulder and leave practically dead," she said.

Her mother died four months later.

Betsy McCaughey, former lieutenant governor of New York and founder of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, said, "These infections kill as many people each year in our country as AIDS, breast cancer and auto accidents combined."

McCaughey said it's secrecy that's allowed the problem to grow. "Most states have not required hospitals to report their infections, or provide that information to the public," she said.

Pennsylvania is one of only six states that has passed a law requiring the reporting of infections. Experts say public disclosure forces hospitals to reduce infection rates. Dr. Rick Shannon, chief of medicine at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, looked at the data on patients in the hospital's intensive care units. He was stunned.

"Fifty-one percent of everyone who got these infections died. Half thepeople who got one died," he said. Dr. Shannon wasted no time. He gave an order to the ICU staff. Reducehospital infections to zero -- in just 90 days.

Staff nurses said they didn't think it could be done.

But after just one week, the ICU staff identified the culprit. It wasn't a superbug -- it was the staff. And the fact they each had their own way of washing hands, changing dressings, and putting in catheters. "No one actually knew what the right way to do it was. And not knowing what the right way to do it was that all these little errors could creep in that would lead to infection," Dr. Shannon said.

Dr. Shannon and his team quickly found solutions, like putting in more hand-sanitizers and raising the head of the bed 30 degrees to prevent pneumonia. The results were unbelievable.

"Ninety days later, we went from 49 infections to zero," he said.

And the results a year later are equally impressive. Only one patient in the ICU has died from an infection.

McCaughey says it's important for the public to know about infection rates at hospitals. "The public has a right to this information. If you are going into the hospital, you should be able to find out which hospital in your area has a serious infection problem, so you can stay away from that hospital," she said. Her advocacy group is working to pass more state laws -- like Pennsylvania's -- requiring hospitals to release this data.

And McCaughey says there's a simple thing you can do to keep yourself safe from dangerous germs in any hospital.

"Ask doctors and nurses to clean their hands before touching you. If you are worried about being too aggressive, just remember, your life is at stake," she said.

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