Hospital hygiene – how the NHS stays clean

Good hygiene in hospitals plays a vital role in ensuring that patients do not catch dangerous infections and diseases, while also ensuring that germs and bacteria cannot spread to visitors and out into the general community. Although good hygiene has been practised in the UK’s hospitals since the days of Florence Nightingale, over the last few years the rise in the number of Hospital Acquired Infections has led to a review of the procedures in place with the result that even more rigorous practices have been put in place.

Types Of Infections Spread By Poor Hygiene In Hospitals

There are several HAIs (hospital acquired infections) which can cause medical problems in patients. The most common of these are MRSA and C. Difficile.

MRSA (or Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus) is resistant to some types of antibiotics and can be found around the world. This infection is spread through contact with an infected surface and this is one reason why hand hygiene is so vital. MRSA spreads quickly to other patients and therefore, patients who are found to have MRSA are usually isolated to prevent further spread. Although MRSA doesn’t usually have a negative effect on healthy people, when people are ill or have a long term health condition, they can be severely affected.

Clostridium Difficile, or C. Difficile is a bacteria which is present in the bowel of many people, and around 3% of healthy people carry it without it causing them any problems. However, in patients, these numbers increase to 36%, with the bacteria causing stomach pain, high temperature, nausea and diarrhoea. Hand washing is again very important to prevent the spread of this infection.

Maintain Cleanliness Within The Hospital Environment

Cleanliness is paramount within a hospital environment, not only within the wards and operating theatres themselves, but also within all public areas including waiting rooms, public toilet facilities, cafeterias and chapels. Evidence has shown that poor environmental hygiene is linked to the transmission of HAIs and higher levels of cleanliness monitoring have now been actioned to guard against further increases in this respect.

MRSA and other pathogens have been found on all kinds of surfaces including computer keyboards, soap dispensers and door handles, and therefore ensuring that even hard to reach areas are well cleaned is vital. Spending longer on routine cleaning tasks and using hypochlorite as a cleaning fluid has shown to be effective in reducing the numbers of patients contracting C. Difficile infection and, when used in conjunction with standard disinfectant, it has been proven to eliminate cross contamination and norovirus. To this end, the following standards have been put in place:

  • The hospital environment should be clean and free from soilage and dust.
  • Increased cleaning levels should be put in place during infection outbreaks.
  • Detergent together with hypochlorite should be used during infection outbreaks.

Decontamination Of Shared Equipment

Tests have shown that even non-invasive equipment such as ultrasound probes and stethoscopes had pathogens on their surface and therefore all shared equipment should be decontaminated following use, using at least soap and water and, during an infection outbreak, using hypochlorite and detergent.

Staff Education

Research found that healthcare workers had poor knowledge of HAIs and appropriate cleaning practices and therefore further education has been put in place as to how to properly clean clinical areas and equipment thoroughly. Healthcare workers at all levels, from care assistants right up to the highest levels have been reminded of the importance of cleanliness and the importance of keeping all equipment clean so that pathogen spread throughout the entire environment can be kept to a minimum.

Hand Hygiene Practices

Poor hand hygiene practices have led to further spread of pathogens, not only among hospital staff, but also among visitors. Especially high levels of contamination have been discovered during the handling of bodily fluids, in respiratory care and direct patient contact, and even when gloves are worn, workers’ hands are not fully protected, which means that hand washing frequently is still vital. The introduction of alcohol hand gels for visitors to wards has also helped to reduce the level of infection among patients by up to 41%.

Hand decontamination processes have been put in place before workers contact patients’ skin or food directly, before they change dressings or change invasive devices and then after caring for patients and after removing gloves. Not only has an emphasis been placed on hand washing over recent years, but the actual washing process to follow has now been specified, including the removal of any rings and false nails and a certain amount of time to wash hands for.

Intravenous Line Cleanliness

When patients have intravenous lines inserted into their body to get medication or fluid into their system bacteria can sometimes get in. Practices are now being put in place to prevent the incidence of line infections by offering additional training to staff members who handle this aspect of care. They do this by carrying out regular infection control audits in all departments and wards to ensure that any risks are swiftly identified, and best practices are put in place with regard to cleanliness and prevention of pathogen spread.