Hidden risk of hospital construction projects: HAIs

In a time when modern, up-to-date facilities can be a big selling point for hospitals seeking more patients, construction and maintenance projects have become the norm in hospitals across the country — but acute care hospitals can't pause patient care while those projects are being completed, since they generally remain open 24/7 to consistently treat patients.

At the surface, construction and maintenance just seems like a nuisance for clinicians and patients alike. But seemingly innocuous construction projects can lead to a bigger issue for hospitals and the immunocompromised patients they treat — hospital-acquired infections.

Infections caused by certain types of bacteria are closely tied with construction projects in hospitals. In fact, studies have shown that more than half of infections caused by Aspergillus spp., a common mold, were associated with construction and maintenance in hospitals, as certain construction and maintenance activities can send the mold airborne affixed to construction dust particles. Infections caused by the mold can be deadly, as well as costly for hospitals.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all hospital personnel should have infection control training and knowledge. Specifically, the CDC's guidelines stipulate that "visual and printed educational materials" be provided to crews to help educate them on the impact their activities can have on patients. Additionally, hospitals should perform an infection-control risk assessment to "identify potential exposures of susceptible patients to dust and moisture and determine the need for dust and moisture containment measures," according to the CDC.

However, oftentimes hospital construction and maintenance projects are outsourced to vendor companies. "There are millions of outside vendors in hospitals working on a daily basis performing painting, elevator maintenance, electrical and plumbing work, balancing air handling systems, the list goes on," says Thom Wellington, a co-founder of Infection Control University.

While hospitals do usually provide training for maintenance and construction crew members, those sessions tend to be attended by supervisors or contractors and not those on the front lines. "Ninety percent of people physically working on the project are missed," says Mr. Wellington, "and hospitals don't have the time or staff to keep training these people, entering facilities on a daily basis."

Mr. Wellington and his colleague and company co-founder Tom Sears aim to provide essential infection control awareness training to the healthcare and vendor employees working in the hospital by creating an online training program, Infection Control University. ICU offers its services at no cost to the hospital and aims at educating vendor employees about infection control measures to minimize the risk of a construction-related HAI.

And simple education tactics, like educational videos, can have an eye-opening effect on construction workers and lower the chances of a deadly construction-related HAI. "We provided a class in one major hospital where we taught the maintenance personnel how their work can cause infections. Their eyes opened up," says Mr. Wellington.

Mr. Sears agrees. "We empower people with knowledge to create significant change and they become self-aware," he says.

The video course on infection control awareness training, which lasts roughly 25 minutes and ends in a quiz, covers how basic maintenance tasks can pose infection risk and the importance of being self-aware while working in a hospital setting. The course is offered to hospitals for free, and vendors pay an annual fee to access the videos and get their workers trained.

"It's a simple concept that covers the bases that are missed by hospitals now," Mr. Wellington says. And that simple concept can help keep patients safe, reduce infections and save money for the facility.

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