Despite frequent cleaning and sterilization, hospitals are notorious hotspots for germs and pathogens. And it’s not only the sick patients that are passing the germs around. A new study reports that, in caring for patients, healthcare professionals carry a host of bacteria on their scrubs that then get transmitted to various items in a patient’s room. The study highlights the hidden routes of bacterial transmission in the hospital, and argues against the wear of scrubs outside of the hospital too.
"We know there are bad germs in hospitals, but we're just beginning to understand how they spread," said Deverick Anderson, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University Medical Center, and the study’s lead author.
Anderson and his team set out to track the spread of bacteria by collecting thousands of samples from the 167 patients in the study, items in their hospital rooms. These samples were then compared to samples taken from nurses’ scrubs, specifically at the sleeves, midriff, and pockets of the scrubs.
Despite meticulous daily cleaning of patients’ rooms and nurses changing into fresh scrubs before every shift, the team found 22 instances of bacterial transmission. Of these, 6 were from the patient to the nurse, 6 were from were from the room to the nurse, and 10 were from patient to the room.
Although the team did not document transmission from nurses to patients, or nurses to nurses, it’s not unreasonable to assume these scenarios also play out. "We think it's more common than not that these bugs spread to patients in hospitals because of temporary contamination of health care workers," Anderson said.
Of the 6 types of bacteria transmitted, one included methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) – the staph superbug that’s one of the biggest banes of hospital-acquired infections. MRSA bacteria account for over 80,000 hospital-acquired infections, leading to over 11,000 deaths every year.
The researchers noted that scrub sleeves and pockets were the most likely materials to be contaminated on nurses. In the patients’ rooms, bed rails were where most of the bacterial contamination occurred.
“This study shows we need to be 100 percent diligent about infection control strategies,” said Anderson. He stressed the common, age-old techniques of fighting bacteria: regular hand washing, regular and meticulous room sanitization, and proper use of disposable gowns and gloves (personal protective equipment).
The results of this study also question the appropriateness of wearing scrubs outside of the hospital. If bacteria can hitch a ride on a nurse’s scrub sleeves and end up on hospital bed rails, imagine where the bacteria could end up if nurses wore their post-shift scrubs elsewhere outside the hospital.