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June 23rd, 2011

Germs Lurking on Hospital Surfaces Can Kill You

Betsy McCaughey

If you’re visiting a friend or relative in the hospital, forget taking flowers or candy. Bring gloves and a canister of bleach wipes. Several new studies show that hospital patients are at significantly higher risk of getting an infection if they are placed in a room where a previous occupant had an infection.

Room cleaning is so inadequate that the invisible germs left behind by previous patients are lying in wait.  Hospital infections kill 100,000 people in the U.S. annually according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  That’s higher than the death toll from AIDS, breast cancer, and car accidents COMBINED. Most patients don’t think to ask, “who was treated in this room before me?” Nor will hospitals tell you.

But alarming research published in the Archives of Internal Medicine demonstrates that a patient’s risk of picking up the drug resistant bug MRSA (methicillin resistant Staphylococcus aureus) is fifty percent higher if the previous occupant of the hospital room had it.  Similarly, being placed in a hospital room where the previous patient had Clostridium difficile, or C. diff for short, more than doubles a patient’s chance of getting that dreaded infection, according to a study in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology.

C. diff is the most common hospital infection in some parts of the United States, accounting for  20% in some regions.  Patients pick up invisible C. diff bacteria when they touch surfaces in their room.  Then they pick up a roll or cookie with their contaminated hands and swallow C. diff along with the food. The bacteria cause life-threatening diarrhea.

Pretty awful.  Especially when it could be avoided by keeping the patient’s room clean.  Robert Orenstein, a physician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota launched a clean-up campaign, wiping the frequently touched surfaces around each patient’s bed once a day with bleach-soaked wipes. The results: a 75% drop in C. diff infections.

Lax room cleaning increases the risk of contracting other types of hospital infections too.  The number one predictor of which patient picks up a drug resistant bug called VRE (vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus) is who occupied the patient’s room in the preceding two weeks, according to Tufts University investigators.  That two-week span could mean three or four patients ago.

A study by Dr. Philip Carlin and Dr. Michael Parry of 36 hospitals found that cleaners routinely overlook half the surfaces in patients’ rooms. Toilet seats are cleaner than telephones and call buttons.

Even if doctors and nurses clean their hands coming into the room,  when they reach up to  open the privacy curtain or rest their hands on the bedrail while chatting, they recontaminate their hands.  Then they touch their patient,  and germs enter the patient’s  body via an  IV, urinary tract catheter, wound or surgical incision.

A new study in the American Journal of Infection Control (June 2011) shows that about 20% of doctors’ cell phones are carrying drug-resistant bugs.

For decades, hospital administrators and government agencies have shrugged off the notion that hospitals are dirty saying, “germs are everywhere.”  The Joint Commission, which is responsible for accrediting most hospitals, just considers whether a hospital looks clean. But infection-causing germs are invisible. Food processing plants routinely test surfaces for bacteria.  Hospitals should be doing the same. Why should the standard of cleanliness in an operating room be lower than in a hot dog factory?

The germs, left behind by one patient are putting the next patient in danger. That could be you.

Betsy McCaughey is founder and chairman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths at

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About the Author

Betsy McCaughey
Betsy McCaughey, Ph.D., is a patient advocate and former Lt. Governor of New York State. She is a regular contributor to

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