The recent deaths of patients at Burnaby General Hospital (BGH) has raised questions about what is going on in hospitals, and how transparent they are with information on rates of bacterial outbreaks.
Bacterial outbreaks are an alarming event, but steps can be taken to prevent them or minimize the spread. Recent media releases about higher-than-normal numbers of patients dying from Clostridium difficile have led to attacks on how Fraser Health is running its hospitals, and what needs to change.
Health Minister Michael de Jong responded to the attacks by claiming that aging, out-dated hospital infrastructure, and bathroom shortages are to blame. Bacterial outbreaks are not choosy about the year, make and model of the infrastructure they spread themselves around in.
The most simple and routine precaution of all – hand washing with soap and water – is not being sufficiently practised in most hospitals. Internal audits of B.C. hospitals have shown that full compliance with proper hand washing is extremely low. For example, the Vancouver Island Health Authority Annual Report found proper hand hygiene compliance to be at a mere 12 per cent for the 2010-2011 fiscal year. Why isn’t this being done all the time?
C. difficile is a type of bacteria that produces toxins, in the form of spores, when it spreads. Scientific studies have shown that soap and water kills these toxic spores and stops their spread, although alcohol-based hand rubs do not. It may be that we are seeing too many doctors and nurses relying on the conveniently placed hand-sanitizer dispensers as a quick and easy wash.
Secondly, the proper use and prescription of antibiotics plays a major role in bacterial spread and outbreak control. If over-used, or used improperly, antibiotics can cause more harm than good.
In response to de Jong’s claim of aging infrastructure and bathroom shortage, it may be just that we need to apply proper cleaning techniques in these areas, just as we do with hand washing. Problematic bacteria will infect any surface and spread in any area that isn’t cleaned and sterilized properly.
Master of Public Health student, SFU