How radiology professionals can help prevent the spread of infectious disease

In 1841, Ignaz Semmelweis was an obstetrician at a Vienna maternity hospital. He saw how many women were dying of puerperal fever, a uterine infection following childbirth, 20 times more in the ward where medical students delivered babies than in the next ward, where midwifery students were on staff. The medical students also routinely worked with cadavers. After more research at other hospitals, Semmelweis hypothesized that the medical students were somehow infecting the women. He instituted mandatory hand washing in 1847, and watched infection rates drop dramatically. By 1865, Louis Pasteur proposed the germ theory, discovering that microorganisms were the cause of many diseases.

Ever since, we in healthcare have been working to prevent patients from acquiring infections and diseases from the healthcare setting, known as nosocomial infections. Today, doctors take three full minutes to thoroughly soap and scrub their hands and forearms before donning gloves and gowns, before entering a sterilized operating theatre for surgery.

While radiological professionals are among those not usually subject to that cleanliness regimen, it’s clear that all hospital staffers could benefit from a brush up on their hygiene habits. With various regulations now in place for penalizing hospitals exhibiting a high rate of hospital-acquired infections, the issue also affects every bottom line.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates roughly 1.7 million hospital-associated infections cause or contribute to 99,000 deaths each year. Other estimates indicate 10%, or 2 million patients a year become infected, with the annual cost ranging from $28 billion to $45 billion.

This staggering price, in dollars and lives, is important to every hospital-based professional, but especially the radiological staff. Unlike other staff, radiographers travel throughout nearly the entire hospital. Devices such as encasements and holders travel as well. Anything used in a healthcare setting has the potential to transmit infection. Even doctors’ white lab coats and ties have been implicated in germ transmission. There are many modes of communicable disease transmission and here a couple examples

“Direct transmission” is when microorganisms including germs are spread to patients via contaminated items such as devices and equipment.

“Indirect-contact transmission” is when microorganisms including germs are spread between patients by staff using items that should be changed or sterilized between patients.

We should all become aware of the fine points of our office’s or hospital’s disease-prevention protocols, and take the time to follow them closely, with each patient. Wearing gloves does not replace the need for hand washing, for example, because gloves can have tiny, undetectable defects, or get torn with use.

Many healthcare offices use plastic bags and other containers to keep radiological equipment clean. Some hospitals even engage in specialty services, with patented protocols for ensuring that devices are sterile.

But these actions are only as strong as our will to take them. Long days seeing dozens of patients can make even the best of us tired and more apt to skip strict, time-consuming hygiene protocols. Business-driven attitudes can creep into play, as we feel pressure to see as many patients as possible.

Taking the time to properly prepare yourself and your equipment is really saving time and money, in the long run. Check your employer’s protocols, they may have changed recently. And follow them to the letter, with each and every patient. It’s almost impossible to quantify prevention fully, but you only have to look at the rising rate of nosocomial infections to know it’s always worth it, for your patient, your employer, and most of all, for yourself.

Radiographers work throughout the hospital setting. It’s imperative that we are responsible for reducing the spread of nosocomial diseases such as MRSA and other infectious diseases.