There’s an old axiom that the most dangerous place to be when you are sick is in a hospital. Hospitals and other health-care settings, such as freestanding surgical centers or urgent care facilities, can be quite dangerous, especially for the risk of deadly infections.

In medical lingo, hospital-acquired infections are called nosocomial infections. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 80,000 Americans died each year from them. Some studies suggested that up to one in five patients admitted to a hospital acquired an infection they did not have when they entered. Those numbers soared during the first year of COVID. Many of the victims of COVID got the disease when hospitalized for something else.

While hospitals and other health-care facilities worked diligently to enhance their infection control programs, studies have reported that in their effort to redeploy resources, the historic problem infections (such as sepsis, urinary tract infections, and ventilator-related infection, like pneumonia) increased significantly.

There are several steps you can take if you or a family member are hospitalized or receiving treatment at a freestanding surgical or testing center to avoid being a victim of these unwanted souvenirs of the medical system.

  • Tell health-care professionals to wash their hands. Insist that doctors, nurses, and other facility staff wash their hands before touching you. This simple step cuts the risk almost in half. Simply say, “Please wash your hands.” In most cases, they will respond positively, and they will alert other personnel that you are watching them carefully. A similar strategy applies to gloves. If someone walks into your room wearing medical gloves, ask them to wash their hands and put on new gloves. Some health-care workers wear the same gloves from patient to patient.
  • Beware of catheters and other invasive equipment. Catheters, ventilators, and other similar equipment should be cleaned and monitored for sanitation regularly. Make sure you, or a family member or friend, frequently ask staff dealing with those pieces of equipment to make sure they are clean.
  • Pay attention to a roommate. When hospitalized, most of us share a room with another patient. Pay attention to what is going on with that person. If they seem to be getting sicker or you know they have developed an infection, immediately ask if you are at risk. If you get brushed off, ask to see a nurse epidemiologist or the head of the facility’s infection-control program. If you feel in danger, ask to be moved to another room.
  • Ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask questions about infections and infection control. Medical personnel are busy and often overwhelmed, but the risk of infection is high, and you should expect the best care with the lowest risk of infection possible. Establishing that you or your advocate are actively monitoring your care and their actions only increases your chances of having a positive outcome.

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