Around the world of infection control, there are statistics that we all can recite verbatim: One in 25 patients contract an HAI. One in 9 of those who contract an HAI will die. Fifty percent of high-touch surfaces in a terminally cleaned room may still be contaminated enough to present an infection risk. Almost 300 patients a day pass away from an HAI.
How the patients perceive their own risks is a more fluid, diverse set of threats. Our risk reality is frequently unequal to our risk perception.
Americans currently perceive Ebola to be a higher risk to them than the flu this year, even though the statistics don’t bear this out. The likelihood of dying from Ebola is even more rare than some very unusual, occasionally fatal risks.
The perception of risk can lead us to make individual consumer decisions that can influence institutional decisions. The best example of this might be the tremendous amount of capital healthcare facilities invest in security systems for newborns. Millions of dollars go towards these systems, despite the fact that fewer than 267 in-facility abductions have been attempted in the last 27 years, placing the risk at 1 in 400,000 infants. Consumer perception drove this spending spree, and the competition for the market of new moms (who are usually repeat customers) influenced decisions at hospitals. Statistically, your child is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be kidnapped from the nursery. If perceptions can be aligned with prevalent risks, future investments may yield significant return on investment in terms of patient safety.
I admit that I am an impartial judge with my own prejudices. I recently gave birth to my first child in a large, acute care hospital, and concerns about contamination that might make her ill were top of my mind despite my knowing that mother baby units are much lower risk areas for pathogens to linger. That didn’t stop me from overanalyzing the cleanliness of both my floor and the rest of the hospital. I couldn’t wait to bring my daughter home to the safety and sanitation of our home. The experience fundamentally altered my perception of the jobs we do here at Xenex. Those statistics I mentioned in my opening paragraph? What were shocking numbers to me before are now appalling. Stories of NICUs with infection outbreaks have me feeling infuriated and helpless to solve the problem.
How do we reconcile the irrational fears we have with the realities out there, and achieve rational approaches to prevention? The scientist in me says that we do research, and we compare results, choosing the wisest path from there. Yet customers aren’t aware of these studies, and their sources of information won’t help them understand the research. Even clinicians in healthcare facilities have difficulty keeping abreast of the latest research. To wit: the White House is petitioning Congress to spend $6.8 billion on Ebola preparedness. Hopefully such funding yields research that clarifies our understanding of Ebola risks.
So follows our resolution for 2015: let’s keep encouraging and sharing proven information. Let’s question the premise of our assumptions and challenge our perceptions of risk. Let’s seek out evidence based solutions to our healthcare problems, and make decisions that will protect patients – in addition to making them feel protected.
Rachael Sparks is the Technical Director at Xenex Disinfection Services and was previously a transplant specialist working with hospitals throughout Texas.