September 24, 2012

Hospitals promote private rooms to thwart spread of infections

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling
Staff Writer

PITTSFIELD -- Nearly 100,000 people in the country die every year from infections that they contract while at the hospital, an issue that the health care industry is increasingly targeting as a preventable cause of death.

click image to enlarge

Liisa Janelle, community relations director of Sebasticook Valley Health, draws back a curtain in an existing two-patient room at the Pittsfield hospital. An expansion project should help the hospital to combat infections by transitioning to single-patient rooms with individual bathrooms.

Staff photo by David Leaming

A $9.5 million expansion at Sebasticook Valley Health, one of three similar projects in the area, should help the small Pittsfield hospital to combat infections by making a surprisingly simple design change to the rooms that house 25 beds for patients staying one or more nights.

Once the facility has been renovated, the current system of multipatient rooms with communal bathrooms will be largely replaced by single-patient rooms with individual bathrooms.

Mike Peterson, chief administrative officer, said that the multipatient rooms, which were standard when the hospital was first built 50 years ago, have proven to be inadequate.

"In some cases we have four patients to a single toilet," he said. "That's really a terrible situation."

Peterson said there have been cases where patients have gotten out of their sickbeds to use a bathroom, only to find it had been left locked by another patient staying on the other side of the bathroom.

Preventable deaths

So-called "hospital-acquired infections," are a leading cause of death in the U.S., according to a 2011 report from the Maine Center for Disease Control.

A large body of evidence has emerged over the past 10 years linking multipatient rooms to increased risk of hospital-acquired infections; as a result, more and more hospitals, including Sebasticook, are making the switch to private rooms.

The national Centers for Disease Control estimates that one in 20 hospital visits results in a hospital-acquired infection, leading to as many as 1.7 million cases across the country annually.

These cases result in annual costs of more than $30 billion dollars, with somewhere between 20 and 70 percent of those infections, and their related costs, being preventable. Each individual case costs between $16,000 and $19,000 to treat, according to the 2011 report.

Even in a hospital setting, where staff members work to avoid spreading disease, germs can be transmitted in many ways. Infectious agents can persist in a shower, hitch a ride on the vapor of an air humidifier, be transferred from one patient to another by a medical staff rushing from one patient to the next, or simply travel through the air itself.

During a review of academic studies, the Center for Health Design found that multibed hospital rooms triple the risk of influenza being spread from one patient to another in nursing homes. Patients with roommates are also at a higher risk of a wide range of other types of sickness, including everything from diarrhea to gastroenteritis.

Sue Simpson, of Waterville, said that her 91-year-old mother died after contracting an infectious disease in a multipatient room at an area long-term care facility.

"Her roommate got pneumonia and was very, very sick and we had to ask for them to seclude her or take my mother out of that room," Simpson said.

Private rooms healthier

A study in the American Journal of Infection Control concluded that a private room and bath cuts off many of the possible paths by which a disease can be transmitted.

Single-patient rooms also reduce the number of errors committed by medical staff; staff members are more likely to sanitize their hands between patients if the patients are in separate rooms. And because the rooms have fewer distractions, staff members are also less likely to make medication dispensing errors.

At Inland Hospital, there are 14 private rooms and six rooms that have the capacity for multiple occupants. Barry said that patients are only given roommates when all of the private rooms are filled.

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