Hospitals not as sterile as we think

Antibacterial scrubs may not offer more protection than normal scrubs.
Antibacterial scrubs may not offer more protection than normal scrubs.

You would think that a hospital is the most germ-free place, specifically designed for people to recover from illnesses, not catch them.

But be alarmed – special antibacterial scrubs for nurses don't fend off germs any better than traditional nursing garb, a new study finds.

Different material

"Health care providers must understand that they can become contaminated by their patients and the environment near patients. Although not effective, we looked to eliminate this risk for contamination by changing the material of nurses' scrubs," said lead study author Dr Deverick Anderson.

Anderson directs the Duke University Medical Center's Center for Antimicrobial Stewardship and Infection Prevention.

For the study, researchers tracked 40 nurses who wore three types of scrubs over three 12-hour shifts in which they monitored one or two patients each in medical or surgical intensive care units. The scrub types included: a traditional cotton-polyester blend; one treated with silver-alloy inside fibres; and one treated to kill bacteria.

The investigators monitored germs by taking cultures from the clothing worn by the nurses, and also from patients and the hospital environment around the nurses – including bed rails, beds and supply carts.

The findings showed that the scrubs were contaminated at the same level regardless of type, and that new contamination moved in during one-third of shifts. A germ known as Staphylococcus aureus was transmitted most often.

Nothing is sterile

"There is no such thing as a sterile environment. Bacteria and pathogens will always be in the environment," Anderson said in a news release from the Society for Healthcare Epidemiology of America.

"Hospitals need to create and use protocols for improved cleaning of the health care environment, and patients and family members should feel empowered to ask health care providers if they are doing everything they can to keep their loved one from being exposed to bacteria in the environment," he added.

The researchers suggested that the scrubs may have failed to keep germs at bay because their antibacterial properties weren't strong enough to combat persistent exposure to germs over short periods of time.

The study was published online in the journal Infection Control & Hospital Epidemiology. Funding was provided by the US National Institutes of Health and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Measures against germs in hospitals

Unfortunately the lack of a sterile in hospitals is not a new topic. Previous Health24 articles mention that hospital workers play a disproportionate role in spreading germs. While hospitals will never be completely sterile, hospital staff do make more of an effort with hand-washing. Patients should also not hesitate to query whether healthcare workers followed the hygiene guidelines in place. 

Image credit: iStock

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