No one should have to worry about getting an infection because of their medical care. Yet the CDC estimates 1 in 25 hospitalized patients develop a health care-associated infection.

Root of the issue

These infections are often related to the presence of invasive devices, such as catheters or to surgical procedures where microorganisms (germs) can enter the body, leading to infection.

Health care-associated infections claim the lives of 75,000 Americans each year — twice the amount of people who die from car accidents or breast cancer. In addition to the human cost, health care-associated infections add billions in excess treatment costs to the nation’s health care bill. Hospitals with the highest rates of infections also face financial penalties from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

Prevention 101

Most of these infections are preventable by following good infection prevention practices, such as proper hand washing, sterile techniques and cleaning and disinfection of medical equipment and high-touch surfaces in the patients’ hospital room. Research shows that when health care facilities are aware of infection problems and take specific steps to prevent them, infection rates can be decreased by as much as 70 percent.

Infection preventionists are experts working in hospitals and other care settings to protect patients and health care workers from deadly infections. They develop and monitor infection prevention processes and procedures, educate staff and promote the application of evidence-based practices that prevent transmission of infection consistently across the institution.

Positive results

Over the past decade, infection prevention teams, led by infection preventionists at hospitals across the country, have made progress in reducing health care-associated infections. Bloodstream infections from central line catheters have dropped by more than 50 percent. Rates for certain surgical site infections have also dipped dramatically.

“Health care-associated infections claim the lives of 75,000 Americans each year — twice the amount of people who die from car accidents or breast cancer”

But there is more work to do. Even one health care-associated infection is one too many. Most infections in health care facilities can be prevented, and many more lives can be saved. Elimination of preventable infections requires the commitment of every member of the health care team, including the C-suite.

Leaders set the tone by making infection prevention and control an organizational priority. They harness the unique skillset of infection preventionists to steer quality improvement initiatives. And they support their infection prevention departments with enough staff, training and resources to run effective facility-wide programs.

Health care leaders need to leverage the value of these specially-trained professionals who possess the scientific and clinical knowledge, combined with social skills, to engage frontline providers to bring the best available evidence-based practice to the patient. The infection preventionist has the 30,000-foot view of the health care facility’s infection prevention efforts and performance. Health care leaders should include the infection prevention program as a visible and integral part of the facility’s leadership structure to promote a strong culture of accountability and patient safety.