Prolonged stays in hospitals and other health care facilities can be overwhelming for patients — and they can also be dangerous. In 2011 alone, an estimated 722,000 people contracted health care-associated infections, or HAIs, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 75,000 died from them during their hospitalizations.

Methods of prevention

But patients and their families can take an active role in collaborating with their health care providers to prevent bad outcomes. Infection-prevention teams, often led by health care epidemiologists, work to develop specific approaches to prevent HAIs and work directly with health care staff to implement methods to prevent HAIs. These medical leaders also respond to disease outbreaks, such as measles and other viruses, to stop their spread.

Research has shown that, through targeted efforts, health care facilities can make substantial reductions in HAIs. One key to fighting infections is using evidence-based guidelines, grounded in strong research, to guide clinical practice. This is part of an ongoing process that engages every staff member at a hospital to work towards a common goal to make patient care as safe as possible and improve patient outcomes.

Responsible antibiotics

Antibiotic resistance presents a growing threat because powerful bacteria are evolving to develop resistance to current antibiotics. The risk is significant: roughly half of all hospital patients receive an antibiotic during their stay, and antibiotic resistance allows these bacteria to kill an estimated 23,000 people annually in the United States alone.

Improving the use of antibiotics across health care setting to ensure that all patients who need antibiotics receive the optimal agents for the right amount of time is critical to reduce threat of resistance and improve the safety of patients receiving antibiotics. Antibiotic stewardship programs, led by physicians and pharmacists, closely monitor antibiotic use and provide advice and education to prescribers about antibiotic decisions.

Unnecessary or incorrect prescribing of antibiotics puts patients at risk for preventable allergic reactions, recurrent infection and deadly diarrhea. Not to mention, inappropriate use also means that antibiotics will be less likely to work in the future.

Doing your part

These facts tell only part of the story. Patients and their families can be an important part of preventing HAIs and bolstering antibiotic stewardship. They can start with a simple but crucial strategy: vigorously cleaning their hands often, with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rubs, especially before touching any medical devices and after using the bathroom.

I also encourage everyone to make sure they have all their vaccinations up-to-date to avoid complications. Patients and their families should ask about the signs and symptoms of infection to ensure that they remain vigilant and make sure they clearly understand how to use the medicines they are prescribed, particularly antibiotics. Additionally, when patients have a medical device, like a urinary catheter, they should ask doctors and nurses why that device is needed, and how soon it can be removed.

It is also important to ask visitors to follow any special instructions from doctors or nurses because their guidance serves to protect everyone. Being a more educated patient plays a vital role in helping your health care team provide safer, more effective care.