This week is Infection Prevention Week, a time to raise awareness of how infections spread and how they can be prevented. Infection prevention is of great importance in a healthcare setting. In one 2011 study, it was discovered that a worrisome 1 in 25 patients ends up with some kind of secondary infection after spending time in a hospital. Some of these pathogens are incredibly dangerous, and to make things worse, widespread inappropriate use of antibiotics has led many of these organisms to evolve resistance. For nurses, physicians, and other healthcare workers, it’s important to break the chain of infection whenever possible to help keep patients protected.
The Chain of Infection
Both inside and outside of a healthcare setting, there are quite a few pathogens that can cause serious infections and illnesses. Bacteria and viruses propagate themselves by infecting new hosts, creating a “chain of infection.” This chain can be divided up into six links:
- The infectious agent that causes the disease, usually a virus or bacterium;
- Reservoirs in the environment where the pathogen can live, like soil or unsterilized medical equipment;
- Portals of exit through which the infectious agent leaves the reservoir, like coughing or open wounds;
- Means of transmission through which one person can pass the infection to another, like inhalation or direct contact;
- Portals of entry through which the germ enters a new host, like an open wound or the respiratory tract;
- Susceptible hosts. These can be anyone, but some people are more susceptible. Because nurses spend so much time around sick people, they’re at a higher risk of contracting infections than the general public.
At any one of these six points, you can break the chain and take actions that help prevent the spread of disease. As healthcare professionals, nurses play a vital role in disease prevention.
6 Ways to Protect Your Patients
These six actionable steps can help you and your coworkers keep your patients protected from the pathogens that cause infections and diseases.
Wash Your Hands
It’s common sense, but hand washing is incredibly important. It’s estimated that fewer than half of healthcare workers clean their hands as often as they’re expected to. Here’s a recap of all the times during your workday that you should really be washing your hands.
- Before an aseptic procedure. This protects your patient from pathogens you may be unwittingly carrying on your hands.
- After body fluid exposure risk. After oral care, skin lesion care, or exposure to blood, washing your hands removes pathogens and prevents them from spreading into your surrounding environment.
- Before touching a patient. In fact, you really need to wash your hands every time you’re about to touch a patient, gloves notwithstanding. You never know what kind of bacteria you might have picked up, and patients who are already sick can be especially susceptible.
- After touching a patient. After giving a physical exam, helping a patient bathe, or otherwise making contact with them, washing your hands protects both you and the patients you’re going to see later in the day.
- After touching a patient’s surroundings. Even if you’re not making direct physical contact with the patient themselves, furniture and other objects in their immediate environment could also be a haven for germs.
When it comes to hand washing, you really can’t be too safe. Taking that extra 30 to 60 seconds to wash your hands again could keep you from missing work because of the flu — and could also save the life of an immunocompromised patient.