Healthcare Associated Infections Leave Patients Feeling “Like Lepers”

Colonization with MRSA, for example, caused patients intense emotions such as “having the plague.”

Xenex Blog Isolation

A compilation of research found that, no matter the location of the hospital, if you are a patient with an healthcare-associated infection (HAI), there are some major emotional burdens.

Researchers at Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland compiled 17 studies about how patients feel about having a healthcare-associated infection (HAI) into a meta-study that examined the collective findings of many researchers across various countries. Common themes were found to be shared in all the studies that shed light on the cultural and social impact of having an HAI.

Whether you’re a patient or healthcare worker, there’s a huge spectrum of physical and emotional reactions to HAIs.

The researchers pointed out that knowing you are colonized with MRSA, for example, but not actively infected, caused patients intense emotions such as “having the plague” or “feeling like a leper”. Yet patients also reported a range of reactions and confusion from healthcare workers (HCWs) about how they as patients should be treated. Having an intensely painful, oozing surgical site infection (SSI) was acutely worrying, while suffering from C.diff infection (CDI) that causes uncontrollable diarrhea, fatigue, and weight loss caused extended embarrassment and social withdrawal. Patients perceived that clinical staff were uncertain as well, sometimes dismissive of the pain or concern of the patient, while other patients reported practitioners who displayed anxiety at treating them, adding to a sense of stigma. Even healthcare policies sometimes heighten a patient’s sense of exclusion by rejecting them from rehab classes or restricting their access to healthcare to later hours in order to protect other patients.

Life with an HAI impacts daily life, relationships, work, and finances.

Across all studies and countries, a collective finding was that an HAI led to patients feeling distanced. Whether because of their own fear of transmitting an infection to loved ones — especially grandchildren and children — or their family’s perceived risk of transmission, the HAI left patients isolated even when not in the hospital. CDI patients especially report a need to forego social events in order to avoid an embarrassing, stressful rush to a bathroom. Even intimate relationships with their partners were affected. Patients colonized with MRSA reported a concern about being able to keep their jobs that required human interactions, while CDI patients sometimes physically couldn’t return to work. Economic stressors included to the cost of additional healthcare support or spousal care needed at home.

There is a cultural, ingrained fear of contagion.

Regardless of nationality, age, or time of the study, an overarching finding was that people worry about getting sick. And if you were the sick patient, chances are you felt stigmatized, a risk to others, or “dirty”. Each type of infection seems to have developed a cultural perception: MRSA was more often blamed on the healthcare system’s hygiene efforts, while victims of SSIs were less likely to blame their infection on hospital cleaning efforts and expressed relief they didn’t have MRSA, “which they associated with ‘dirty’ hospitals.” Patients with MRSA often felt healthcare providers showed particularly negative responses that evoked shame for them.

HAIs certainly present a huge financial burden to the healthcare system, but this meta-study shed needed light on the tremendous social, cultural, and emotional ripples that HAIs leave.

Understanding HAIs, their root causes and long-term impacts can help us as we continue to battle germs in the healthcare system. At Xenex, we regard these studies as a reminder that until every hospital is protecting the environment with the power of a LightStrike program, our job is clear.

Credit Rachael Sparks