By Dr. Mercola
Hospitals are typically thought of as places where lives are saved, but statistics show they’re actually one of the most dangerous places you could possibly frequent.1,2
Each day, more than 40,000 harmful and/or lethal medical errors occur, placing the patient in a worse situation than what they came in with.3
According to a 2013 study,4,5 preventable medical errors kill around 440,000 patients each year—that’s more than 10 times the number of deaths caused by motor vehicle crashes! Hospitals have become particularly notorious for spreading lethal infections.
According to 2014 statistics6,7 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 25 patients end up with a hospital-acquired infection. In 2011 alone, 75,000 people died as a result.8
Medicare patients may be at even greater risk. According to the 2011 Health Grades Hospital Quality in America Study,9 1 in 9 Medicare patients developed a hospital-acquired infection.
Doctors, Nurses, Hospital Administrators Blamed
Over the years, hospitals have been warned they need to improve infectious control, but according to two new reports,10,11 the U.S. healthcare system has largely failed to make a dent in the problem.
On the whole, only 6 percent of U.S. hospitals receive top scores for preventing common drug-resistant infections.
As reported by NBC News:12
“...America's hospitals are still teeming with infectious bacteria, including drug-resistant superbugs...One-third of hospitals rated by Consumer Reports got low scores on how well they prevent one of the worst infections, Clostridium difficile.
Many are flagship teaching hospitals, like those at Johns Hopkins University or Harvard Medical School, and... the prestigious Cleveland Clinic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention laid the responsibility squarely on doctors, nurses and hospital administrators.
"Doctors are the key to stamping out superbugs. Antibiotic resistance threatens to return us to a time when a simple infection could kill," CDC Director Dr. Tom Frieden told reporters...
“These infections are not mysterious," he said. "They're caused by unwashed hands, rooms that are not cleaned thoroughly, overuse and misuse of antibiotics, a lack of careful hygiene in inserting catheters and other tubes, and slow detection of outbreaks...
There are clear simple steps. The hard part is to do them each and every time."
Patients Also Need to Wash Their Hands
According to a research letter13,14 published in JAMA Internal Medicine, patients also shoulder some of the blame. Again, the problem can be traced back to lack of proper hand washing.
In this paper, they tested patients who went from hospitals to post-acute care facilities such as rehab centers and other long-term care facilities. Nearly 1 in 4 had some sort of drug-resistant microbe on their hands when leaving the hospital.
About 10 percent of these patients ended up picking up yet another drug-resistant germ while in post-acute care. Of those who tested positive for drug-resistant bacteria, 67 percent still had them when they were discharged, even if they never became ill from it.
So this is another crucial recommendation. Washing your hands is generally recognized as an important infection control strategy but one of the MOST important times to wash your hands is when you are in the hospital, even if you are visiting someone and not a patient.
In this way, you’ll minimize the risk of spreading microbes out among the general population. According to Leah Binder, president of the Leapfrog Group, an organization that grades hospitals on patient safety:
"We have to revise hand hygiene policies to include patients. One of the main strategies on hand hygiene is to make it easy to wash hands.
Most hospitals have either sinks or dispensers near the door of every room, so that it's very easy for a provider walking in to immediately wash their hands. Do we make it easy for patients to wash their hands? I doubt it."
Hand Washing Tips
Hand washing needs to be done correctly however, in order to be truly effective for disease control. Simply rinsing your hands with water, or giving a quick scrub with soap, is not enough to remove germs.
So, to make sure you're actually removing the germs when you wash your hands, follow these guidelines:15
- Wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water
- Use plain soap. Antibacterial soap is completely unnecessary and could easily do more harm than good. As a matter of fact, the antibacterial compounds found in most of these soaps are another contributing factor to the rapid emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
Research has also confirmed that antibacterial soap is no more effective than plain soap at reducing bacterial contamination when used under 'real-life' conditions
- Clean all the nooks and crannies of your hands, including under fingernails
- Rinse thoroughly under running water
- Use a paper towel to open the door as a protection from germs that harbor on handles
How to Make Your Hospital Stay Safer
Besides washing your own hands, ask all personnel to wash theirs before touching you. While many are intimidated by medical personnel, and doctors in particular, just know that vocalizing requests such as these is well within your rights as a patient, and may very well save your (and other people’s) life.
Other proactive steps you can take to protect yourself against hospital-acquired superbugs and medical errors include:16,17,18
|Bring bleach wipes with you. Wiping down surfaces around your hospital bed—including the bed rails, table, IV pole, vital signs monitor, computer monitor and keyboard, call button, and television remote control—can reduce the risk of Clostridium difficile infection by nearly 85 percent.|
Also ask your doctor to wipe off his or her stethoscope before placing it on your body.
|Ask to be tested for MRSA. If you are infected, you, your doctors and nurses will have a heads-up that greater diligence and care is required to prevent transmission.
|Choose a hospital with a low infection rate.19,20 Avoid teaching hospitals in June, July and August.|
Statistically, more errors occur during these months due to the influx of new residents (doctors in training), and senior “attending” doctors taking their vacations.
Lethal medication errors consistently spike by about 10 percent each July, due to the inexperience of new residents.21 Also be cautious of weekends.
|Make sure you really need antibiotics if one is prescribed for you. If your doctor suspects an infection, a rapid culture can help identify the bacteria in question, which will allow your doctor to prescribe the most effective antibiotic.
Also request the lowest effective dose possible.
|Bathe with chlorhexidine soap a day or two before going in for scheduled surgery.||Ask your doctor about probiotics, especially if you’re given an antibiotic. Probiotics may help reduce your risk of Clostridium difficile infection.
|Before scheduling a colonoscopy, ask what solution is used to clean the scope. Make sure the hospital or clinic uses peracetic acid, to avoid potential transfer of infectious material from previous patients.|
Cidex (glutaraldehyde), which 80 percent of hospitals and clinics use, does NOT properly sterilize these tools.
|Proton-pump inhibitors prescribed for heartburn or stomach pain can increase your risk for Clostridium difficile infection, so if your doctor wants to give you one, ask why, and make sure there’s a solid reason for taking it.
If you’re concerned you may be given unnecessary drugs or surgery, ask for a Patient Advocate, or request a different doctor.
|Request IV’s, tubes, and catheters to be removed as early as possible, as the longer they stay in, the greater your risk of infection.||Make sure an electric shaver is used, not a razor, to prep skin areas for surgery. Razors can easily nick the skin, even if microscopically, allowing bacteria to enter and fester.
What Hospitals Won't Tell You—Vital Strategies that Could Save Your Life
Download Interview Transcript
I previously interviewed Dr. Andrew Saul on the issue of hospital medical errors and patient safety. As the co-author of “Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter Hospital Stay,”22 he has a lot of wisdom to share with regards to keeping yourself safe from medical harm. It is possible to make hospital stays safer and more healing, and his book addresses this at depth.
Here are a few summarized nuggets from this interview (included above for your convenience), the most important point being the first one. I also recommend buying the book for more comprehensive information.
- Bring a friend or family member who can help look out for your best interest. This is really critical. Ideally, you want someone with you 24 hours a day, who can double-check what medications you’re being given and why, make sure nurses and doctors are washing their hands and ask questions about any procedures being done.
It’s human nature to be more attentive to detail when you know you’ll be questioned, so having an advocate who can keep hospital staff accountable can go a long way toward minimizing errors.
- Understand and remember that as the patient, you are the most powerful person in the hospital. However, the hospital system works on the assumption that the patient will not claim that power. Doctors, nurses, and hospital administrators are offering you products and services, and they’re trying to get you to accept them without question, but you do have the right to say no to any treatment you do not want.
You also have the right to revoke permission you may previously have given. If you are incapacitated, your spouse, followed by your children, has the most influence.
- Optimize your nutrition. Hospital meals are almost universally associated with ultra-processed food that will not do your health any favors. You can sometimes get better food simply by asking for a vegetarian meal. It can also be helpful to bring a note from your primary care physician if you take vitamins and want to continue taking them while in the hospital. Also know your patient rights, should the staff insist you can’t take them while staying there.
Being Proactive and Assertive Can Make Your Hospital Stay Safer
From my perspective, checking yourself into a hospital should be an option of last resort, when you have exhausted all others (barring an actual life-threatening emergency). Not only do you risk developing a potentially life-threatening infection, but they also all-too-frequently give you the wrong solution for your problem. Surgery, for example, is a widely overused option that can cause far more problems than it solves.
However, should a hospital stay be necessary, you would do well to heed the advice of Dr. Saul, and bring a personal advocate with you—a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you’re given proper care if you’re too incapacitated (or timid) to do so yourself.
If you’re serious about minimizing your hospital visits, start by taking control of your health and building a strong immune system. This will minimize your risk of becoming hospital-bound due to severe illness, as well as minimize your risk of acquiring an antibiotic-resistant infection. Keeping your immune system healthy begins with common sense strategies such as eating real food, managing your stress, and getting plenty of daily movement and regular exercise.
Since we’ve been talking about antibiotic-resistant infections, remember that the vast majority of meats sold come from animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), where antibiotics are routinely administered not only to combat disease but also to promote rapid growth. This is a major reason for opting for 100% organic and grass-fed meats and animal products, as organic standards to not permit the routine non-medical use of antibiotics.