The People's Perspective on Medicine

Do Drug-Resistant Germs Hide Out in Hospitals?

Privacy curtains, computer keyboards, soap dispensers and nebulizers could all be hiding places for drug-resistant germs like MRSA or Candida auris.
Antimicrobial susceptibility testing in petri dish, test for drugs resistance in bacteria

In the 19th century, nobody wanted to go to the hospital. Before antibiotics were discovered, people considered these institutions as the very last resort. The wards were unfriendly and frequently contaminated. Many people perceived the hospital as a place you went to die.

Nowadays, hospitals are often inviting. Many offer private rooms, and in some facilities a family member can spend the night. Hygiene practices have improved significantly.

For decades, cleaning strategies and modern antibiotics kept infections under control. Now, however, many pathogens have evolved to resist antimicrobial drugs. We are also learning that these drug-resistant germs may persist in unexpected nooks and crannies of the hospital room and its equipment.

Where Do Drug-Resistant Germs Hide?

Many rooms have privacy curtains, for example. These floor-to-ceiling textiles shield patients from view during procedures. However, the fabric can easily become contaminated with germs. Some microbes have developed resistance to the most frequently used antibiotics and thus pose a health hazard. These data are being presented at the European Congress of Clinical Microbiology and Infectious Diseases in Amsterdam.

Why are there microbes on the curtains? People touch the panels frequently. Doctors and nurses pull them aside or close them. Patients and visitors do the same. And hospitals have not developed clear guidelines on how to clean them to remove any drug-resistant germs.

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Fungicide-Resistant Candida:

Bacteria like MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) are not the only hazard lurking in hospital rooms. Epidemiologists have just raised the alarm about a species of fungus that has acquired resistance to multiple anti-fungal drugs. The organism, Candida auris, has caused nearly 600 serious infections in the US. In at least one case, fungal spores were so pervasive and persistent that the hospital had to remove ceiling and floor tiles and all the equipment in the room to get rid of them. Even the mattress was contaminated and presumably needed to be destroyed.

What Britain Does to Fight Drug-Resistant Germs:

In Britain, the National Health Service instituted several policies designed to reduce germ transmission. They include prohibitions on health care workers wearing any jewelry, including watches. Scrubs must leave arms bare below the elbows. Ties and white coats are banned.

Doctors hated the new policies. But over time health professionals throughout the UK have adapted to the requirements.

All these rules raised a lot of eyebrows in the US when they were initiated in the UK in 2008. Infectious disease experts argued that no cases of infection transmission had been unequivocally linked to neckties, white coats, watches or stethoscopes. They cited the lack of clear evidence of transmission to explain that such infection control policies were unnecessary.

Despite this, research has demonstrated that such surfaces are frequently contaminated with a variety of pathogens. So are items such as computer keyboards, tablets, mobile phones, soap dispensers, electrocardiogram leads and nebulizers (Clinical Infectious Diseases, Oct. 15, 2017). 

Experts still entertain serious doubts about the importance of any of these contaminated items as sources of infection. After all, health care systems are often secretive about their infection rates and pathogen control measures.

Should the US Follow Britain’s Lead?

Nonetheless, with drug resistant germs becoming increasingly common, health care facilities may wish to pay more attention to infection control procedures. Perhaps US hospitals should consider following UK policies.

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies. .
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  • Kanamori et al, "The role of patient care items as a fomite in healthcare-associated outbreaks and infection prevention." Clinical Infectious Diseases, Oct. 15, 2017. DOI: 10.1093/cid/cix462
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Rubber gloves protect the wearer not the patient! Check out the kitchen personnel & food handlers, plus where they buy their food, organic or commercial (pesticides). I took home C-difficle, enterococcus & a huge bill from the hospital. I drove 2 days a week to cancer center for infusions and my urine + for E-coli.

There are plenty of glaring possibilities for infections in hospitals, clinics, etc. Personnel, mostly women, with their hair not pinned back, hanging down and who are constantly are brushing it back with their hands. Long hair pulled back in a pony tail or bun but lots of long wispy strands hanging down around the face. Medical personnel, men and women, with their too-long pants legs dragging on the floor, sidewalks, parking lots. Then there are the chairs in the rooms: People sit in them after having sat all over the place–the ground, restaurants, bus seats, playing w/animals, etc. Then the person changing bedclothes comes into the room and plops the clean bed clothes in the chair. And then they wonder how/why the patient’s wound got infected. I’ve seen all this and plenty more. Enough to make you sick!

I am a retired R N who worked 43 years in local hospitals. I agree very much with the findings in this article. Nurses, techs, and doctors do not wash their hands enough. Good old soap and water. We had disposable stethoscopes for isolation cases. But they also should be cleaned between patients. I would like to see the doctors wash their hands between patients.

I’ve actually gotten infected in hospitals and during wound care. If you watch carefully at wound care, nurses will pull the same pen from their pocket with gloves on, and will handle keys that are used in every room without a glove change unless asked. Though other protocols are in place, it’s obvious that staff in some facilities are not paying as close attention as possible to their every move in cross-contamination. I watch and ask that they change gloves if they handle something that has been to other patient rooms. I actually had the wound care doctor at the facility a little disgusted with me for having to return with a new infection in the same wound. I held back from telling him that his staff were the problem.

How about doctors having some common sense and NOT shaking hands with ANYONE anymore!? I now tell doctors that due to these drug-resistant super bugs I only “Salute” doctors! And THAT is nothing but a “Win/Win” compromise to the Doctor/Patient relationship. :)

As a student nurse in the ’60s, we were not allowed to polish our nails. We were told chipping polish would harbor organisms.

What I hate to see in a hospital setting are long fake fingernails. Seems like they could harbor many germs.

The key needs to be TRANSPARENCY! Patients have a right to know the infection rates of the hospital,the type of bacteria in the facility and what the infection control program is in the hospital BEFORE they go to that hospital!

Thank you for this article. It is very concerning that people are dying from an nosocomial infection after surviving the surgery or other treatment!

Shocked during post surgery overnight hospital stay when a nurse placed linens including towels on the chair where every visitor to that room ever had sat. She had no sanitary option. I asked for replacements, which she put on the edge of the sink. Uck. Very dangerous.

Highly contagious superbugs like NAP c-diff and MRSA are very commonly found in supermarket raw meat. No mention of this. Typical.

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