Hospitals are breeding grounds for dangerous bacteria, including those that cause C. diff and MRSA infections.

Some 650,000 people developed those and other infections after being admitted to U.S. hospitals in 2011, and 75,000 died, based on the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That would make hospital-acquired infections the nation’s eighth leading cause of death, just behind diabetes and just ahead of flu and pneumonia.

Many hospitals have cut the risk of some of those infections—but too many have not. And sometimes bad things happen even in good hospitals.

“That’s why you need to be alert, whenever and wherever you enter a hospital,” says Lisa McGiffert, director of Consumer Reports’ Safe Patient Project.

Here are key steps you can take for preventing infections in the hospitals, so you can keep yourself and your family safe in the hospital.

1. Check Up on Your Hospital 
See how it compares with others on central line, C. diff, and MRSA infections, as well as other measures of patient safety. To compare hospitals in your area at preventing infections, use our hospital ratings.

2. Have a Friend or Family Member With You
That person can act as your advocate, ask questions, and keep notes. A Consumer Reports survey of 1,200 recently hospitalized people found that those who had a companion were 16 percent more likely to say that they had been treated respectfully by medical personnel. The most important times to have a companion for preventing infections and other medical errors are on nights, weekends, and holidays, when staff is reduced, and when shifts change.

3. Keep a Record
Keep a pad and pen nearby so that you can note what doctors and nurses say, which drugs you get, and questions you have. If you spot something worrisome, such as a drug you don’t recognize, take a note or snap a picture on your phone. You can also use your phone to record thoughts or conversations with staff. Though some may object, “explain that you are recording so you remember later,” McGiffert says.

4. Insist on Clean Hands
Ask everyone who enters your room whether they’ve washed their hands with soap and water. Alcohol-based hand sanitizer is not enough to destroy certain bacteria, such as the dangerous C. diff. Don’t hesitate to say: “I’m sorry, but I didn’t see you wash your hands. Would you mind doing it again?”

5. Keep It Clean
Bring bleach wipes for bed rails, doorknobs, the phone, and the TV remote, all of which can harbor bacteria. And if your room looks dirty, ask that it be cleaned.

6. Cover Wounds
Some hospitals examine incisions daily for infection, but opening the bandage exposes the area to bacteria. Newer techniques—sealing the surgical site with skin glue (instead of staples, which can harbor bacteria) and waterproof dressings that stay on for one to three weeks without opening—are effective at preventing infection. (Watch a video on the right way to care for wounds at home.)

7. Inquire Whether IVs and Catheters Are Needed
Ask every day whether central lines, urinary catheters, or other tubes can be removed. The longer they’re left in place, the greater the infection risk.

8. Ask About Antibiotics
For many surgeries, you should get an antibiotic 60 minutes before the operation. But research suggests that the type of antibiotic used or the timing of when it’s administered is wrong in up to half of cases.

9. Postpone Surgery If You Have an Infection
That increases your risk of developing a new infection and worsening an existing one. So if you have any other type of infection—say, an abscessed tooth—then the surgery should be postponed, if possible, until it’s completely resolved.

10. Say No to Razors
Removing hair from the surgical site is often necessary, but doing that with a regular razor can cause nicks that provide an opening for bacteria. The nurse should use an electric trimmer instead.


Read more about how to stay safe in the hospital, and see our hospital ratings of more than 3,000 medical centers across the country.
 

11. Question the Need for Heartburn Drugs
Some patients enter the hospital taking heartburn drugs such as lansoprazole (Prevacid) or omeprazole (Prilosec) or are prescribed one after they’re admitted. But these drugs, called proton-pump inhibitors, increase the risk of intestinal infections and pneumonia, so consider stopping them before admission and, once there, ask whether you really need one.

12. Test for MRSA
Ask your surgeon to screen you for MRSA, a potentially deadly bacteria that’s resistant to antibiotics, either before you enter or on admission, so that you can address the problem and hospital staff can take extra steps to protect you and others.

13. Watch for Diarrhea
Get tested for C. diff if you have three loose stools within 24 hours. If you test positive, expect extra precautions for preventing infections from spreading to others.

14. Quit Smoking, Even Temporarily
You won’t be allowed to smoke in the hospital anyway, and stopping as long as possible beforehand cuts the risk of infection. Read our advice on how to stop smoking.

15. Wash Up the Night Before Surgery
Ask about taking precautions before entering the hospital, such as bathing with special soap or using antiseptic wipes.


Hospital Ratings: Preventing Central-Line Infections


Click on the icons in the map below to see how well hospitals in your area prevented these common, costly, and often deadly infections.

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The Pronovost Principles

A photo of Dr. Peter Pronovost

Peter Pronovost, M.D., now senior vice president for patient safety and quality at Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore, developed a checklist to prevent central-line infections more than 15 years ago. It's still the gold standard.

If a family member needs a central line, make sure hospital staff follows this protocol when placing or handling one of the IVs:

  • Thoroughly wash hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand rub.
  • Wear protective clothing when inserting the line, including mask, cap, gown, and gloves; the patient should be covered with a sterile sheet.
  • Disinfect the patient’s skin with the antiseptic chlorhexidine.
  • Avoid placing the IV in the groin.
  • Check every day whether the catheter can be removed.

In addition, the insertion site should be covered with sterile gauze or chlorhexidine dressings, and caregivers should wash their hands before touching the patient or the line and scrub the access port before each use.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.