Hospitals are where the sick people are.  While patients may go home after they get better, they often leave bacteria and viruses behind, where they infect the next round of patients.  You may go to the hospital to get well, but you may end up getting an infection in the hospital that can leave you permanently disabled or can even kill you.

Every hospital has protocols intended to reduce the risk of infection among its employees and its patients.  Even if these protocols are followed carefully and to the letter, and often they are not, infections persist.  It is a tall order to prevent infections in hospitals for a number of reasons.

Sick people come to hospitals.  Many of them bring with them the germs that made them sick in the first place.  They breathe those germs out when they talk or cough.  They leave germs on the surfaces they touch.  They deposit germs on the nurses or doctors who treat them and those nurses and doctors go on to see other patients.  By their very nature, hospitals are exposed to many different types of bacteria and viruses.

Even worse is the fact that some of those bacteria are resistant to antibiotics.  For many years, we have been giving antibiotics to animals to prevent disease.  We ingest these antibiotics when we eat chicken or beef.  We ask for and doctors give out antibiotics routinely.  Antibiotics have found their way into the water supplies as well as into the food supplies.  Combine these facts with the laws of nature and you have a recipe for disaster.

Bacteria are living creatures.  When exposed to an appropriate antibiotic, most of them will die.  The problem is that not all of them will die.  Over time, after repeated exposure to an antibiotic, some bacteria will develop a resistance to it.  Doctors will then switch to a different antibiotic and use it until the bacteria develop a resistance to it as well.  We are running out of antibiotics to switch over to.  There are now some very aggressive and potent bacteria that have developed resistance to all of our antibiotics.  If they are not already there, these bacteria will eventually be brought to hospitals, where they will be virtually impossible to destroy.

Hospitals are also problematic because so many of the people there are sick and their illnesses weaken their immune systems.  Bacteria and viruses they might be able to resist when they are healthy are now able to overcome their compromised immune systems.

Another problem at hospitals is the use of procedures which bypass the body’s primary defense against infection: the skin.  Our skin keeps bacteria out of our bloodstreams and away from our tissue.  In the hospital, however, we may have an procedure in which an incision is made in the skin or we may need a catheter or a ventilator.  Each of these presents an opportunity for bacteria to bypass the skin and enter the body.

If you are not going to the hospital for an emergency, you may have a choice about where to go.  Doctors who practice in hospitals usually have privileges at more than one hospital.  If you have the ability to choose your hospital or to at least make a suggestion about where you would like to go, visit Medicare’s Hospital Compare site.   It has lots of useful information about hospitals, including information about infection rates and how hospitals stack up against the national averages.

I also recommend you take a look at the information provided by the Centers for Disease Control about infections and what you can do as a patient to reduce the risk of a dangerous infection.  There is some very good advice to be found there.

As always, be aware that health care is a two-edged sword.  While it helps make us better, it exposes us to some risks.  Do your part to keep from spreading infections to others and to keep others from infecting you.

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