The findings of a new study provide potential clues about the source of some hospital acquired infections, indicating that recently admitted patients often have antibiotic-bacteria on their hands, which could result in so called “superbug” infections that are difficult to treat and potentially life-threatening.
Researchers from the University of Michigan found that patients entering hospitals commonly tested positive for multidrug-resistant organism (MDRO) colonies on their hands. They also found this contamination appeared to correlate with high levels of contamination on room surfaces often touched by patients and staff.
The findings were published April 13 in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases.
Researchers recruited 399 patients at two hospitals in southeast Michigan within 24 hours of arrival to their hospital room. They were followed for 710 hospital visits.
The study involved microbial surveillance of the patients’ hands, noses, and six high touch surfaces, including areas like bed controls, call buttons, and bedside tray tables. Sampling was done on admission, at day three, at day seven, and then weekly until discharge.
According to the findings, 14% of patients tested positive for a drug resistant bacteria when they were admitted to the hospital, indicating they came into contact with the superbug prior to their hospital stay. Roughly 10% of patients had the superbugs on their hands and half of those who tested positive had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA).
Another six percent of patients who did not have the superbug when they entered the hospital tested positive later during their stay.
One-third of patient rooms had drug resistant bacteria on surfaces in the room, like the nurse call button. Overall, one-fifth of objects tested in patient rooms had superbugs on them.
Prior studies have shown hospital patient’s hands are a significant source of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and allow transmission to other patients.
Another study published in 2017 linked hospital-acquired infections like MRSA and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE) to contaminated hospital floors. More than 40% of floors in patient rooms were contaminated with superbugs. Another study linked drug resistant pathogens to stethoscopes used in intensive care settings.
According to the researchers, transmission of drug resistant bacteria from patients to room surfaces was rapid, making the possibility of infection easier. Once infected, patients face a higher risk of complications. More than 20,000 people died in 2017 from staph infections, including MRSA.
The presence of a superbug on patient hands or in the rooms does not necessarily mean patients will become infected, the researchers cautioned. In fact, most healthy people will not, they said. However, having the superbug does make it more likely a patient will later become infected.
Hand washing, patient cleaning protocols, and patient room cleaning in the healthcare setting is essential, especially with patients who are already ill and have weakened immune systems.
Superbugs are primarily transmitted to patients via healthcare workers’ hands. For that reason, a lot of emphasis has been placed on healthcare worker hand washing practices in recent years.
However, the findings of the new study emphasize patient hand washing protocols should be considered to help reduce transmission of pathogens and healthcare-associated infections.