648,000 Got Hospital-Related Infections in 2011
Specific source of dangerous germs still unclear in about half of cases
The fight to halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant germs continues to be a top priority for U.S. hospitals, said Nancy Foster, vice president of quality and patient safety policy for the American Hospital Association (AHA).
"It's a very complex and challenging clinical area, but one that doctors and nurses and pharmacists are passionate about getting their hands around because we can see how devastating it can be for patients," Foster said.
The new study resulted from the CDC's multistate survey of infections associated with health care. The survey used 2011 data from 183 U.S. hospitals to estimate the burden of a wide range of infections in hospital patients across the country.
Researchers already are taking steps to track down the unknown causes of hospital infections, CDC's Bell said.
For example, many of the pneumonia cases not caused by ventilation could occur due to aspiration, with the patient breathing in germs in their own saliva or regurgitation.
"If we find that a lot of this is aspiration, that's a big deal," he said, noting that cutting back on the use of sedatives could cut back on aspiration and, as a result, the number of pneumonia cases. "That sort of thing we can tackle with a coordinated effort."
Hospitals are investigating other sources of infection, including the spread of disease back and forth between hospitals and care facilities, AHA's Foster said.
Experts also are considering germs that might be introduced by families and friends visiting loved ones, and the possibility that common physician items such as stethoscopes and white coats might carry bugs from patient to patient.
"There are a lot of good ideas out there, but we find in each hospital the sources of infection are different, so the strategies that will work for them may be different as well," Foster said.
Patients can help themselves avoid infection while hospitalized by asking lots of questions, Bell suggested.
They can ask what's being done to prevent them from contracting C. difficile or having a surgical site infection. They also can ask every day if they can have their catheter removed, since the device increases their infection risk.
Even better, patients can get a loved one to ask these questions for them, as well as requiring anyone who enters the room -- even hospital staff -- to wash their hands.
"It's not very realistic to expect a sick person to deal with all of this. It really helps a lot to have a friend or family member with you and be tasked with some of these things," Bell said.