How to Stay Safe in the Hospital

A hospital can be a scary place. Following these simple rules can help you get out in good health.

If you’ve had a heart attack, stroke, or major injury, a hospital is the best place to be. That said, as a nurse I can assure you that hospitals can also be one of the most dangerous places you could be. Whether you're a patient or a visitor, each time you enter a hospital you’re exposed to potentially lethal infection from viruses and bacteria, as well as other serious threats.

Hospital Safety When You’re a Patient

If you fear getting an infection while hospitalized, you're not a hypochondriac. The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that approximately 1.7 million hospital-acquired infections account for as many as 98,000 deaths each year. And there are also risks from medication errors, blood clots, and falls. Follow these guidelines to get discharged in good health:

1. Don’t be afraid to politely ask all of your doctors, nurses, staffers, and visitors to wash their hands or use antibacterial hand rub before touching you. Infections travel by touch, so speak up and ask everyone to wash up, even if they plan to put on examination gloves. CDC guidelines specifically state that "hand hygiene is required regardless of whether gloves are used," because it has not yet been definitively proven that gloves alone prevent the transmission of infection.

2. To prevent medication errors, speak up and take charge of your care. Ask a nurse for a printout of all the medications ordered for you while you’re in the hospital, and their dosages, and then hang onto this "cheat sheet" throughout your stay, updating it when changes are made. With your list in hand, ask doctors, nurses, or staffers to tell you exactly what they're giving you before they administer any pill, injection, cream, or additive to your intravenous line. It's also a good idea to have an informed advocate, like a family member or friend, in the room to ask the same questions on your behalf if you're not up to it, or while you sleep.

3. If you’re bedridden, ask your doctor what steps he or she is taking to prevent blood clots in your legs. The doctor may want you to wear a special sleeve on your calf that inflates periodically to squeeze your veins and improve circulation. Alternatively, he or she may order a medication to thin the blood. Whatever form it takes, blood clot prevention is crucial for bedridden patients.

4. When you're out of bed and stretching your legs, be vigilant for trip hazards. Hospitals are full of electrical cords snaking across floors and equipment cluttering the hallway. If you're at all unsteady, ask for an assistive device, such as a walker. Don’t be heroic and refuse aid if you’re wobbly. Your goal is to get out of the hospital without breaking a hip, not to prove how tough you are.

Hospital Safety When You’re a Visitor

Gravity works on everything, including bacteria. That means hospital surfaces and floors are teeming with dangerous germs. When you enter a hospital, treat everything you touch as if it’s contaminated. Despite the heroic efforts of the housekeeping crew, it probably is. Along with following hospital guidelines and the instructions of your loved one's doctors and nurses, here’s what to do to keep your family safe when visiting a loved one:

1. Leave your baby at home. I can’t tell you how often I cringe at the sight of infants crawling around on a surgery waiting room floor. The developing immune systems of small children do not need to be exposed to potentially lethal bacteria. Check ahead: Some hospitals have special rules for visits to some units by children under certain ages, even up to 12. My advice as a nurse? Don't bring infants and toddlers to the hospital at all unless you have to. It’s not worth the risk.

2. Wear closed-toe shoes. Ask any nurse if she wears her work shoes into her home and you’ll probably hear an emphatic “No!” We know our shoes get contaminated with germs. It follows, then, that if you wear sandals into the hospital, you’re contaminating the exposed areas of your feet. Worse, if you have even the tiniest of cracks in the skin around your toenails, on your heel, or anywhere else, you’re inviting those germs in. And if you have athlete’s foot or another fungus, you may be spreading it to others with compromised immunity.

3. Wash your hands. And then wash them again. And again. You can’t wash your hands enough when you’re visiting someone in the hospital. Like I said, assume every surface (including the patient you're visiting) is contaminated. Wash thoroughly with soap, rinse well, and towel completely dry. And when you get home, wash your clothes and take a shower.

Elizabeth Hanes
By Elizabeth Hanes
Elizabeth Hanes is a registered nurse who writes regularly about health, wellness, nutrition and caregiving. She won a 2010 Online Journalism Award for "Dad Has Dementia," her 36-week journal about caring for her late father. She lives in New Mexico where she also writes about art, antiques and collecting. 

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