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Enlisting Patients in Disease Prevention & Infection Control

This blog has frequently explored the role of healthcare facilities, facilities managers and clinical staff in ensuring proper infection control measures are being followed. What we have looked at less often is the role of the patient. Healthcare facilities have many aspects in common but no matter the size or type of facility, all are in the business of treating patients. Patients are the common denominator in the demand for infection control so it is important that we look to how they may be able to participate in the process themselves.


The Role of the Patient is Changing

Since the beginning of what we typically describe as “modern Western medicine” there has been a very specific way in which the healthcare process proceeds. A 2010 article from the peer-reviewed Mayo Clinic Proceedings notes that , in short, the relationship between provider and patients has been described as largely “paternalistic” with clinicians like doctors and nurses bearing the brunt of the decision-making and patients playing a largely passive role.

More recently, views on this process have been evolving, mostly based on the more humanist idea that patients have the right to self-determination and should be actively involved in their healthcare choices. In addition, the growing idea of the patient as a healthcare consumer has come to empower many patients to demand what they would from any consumer situation -- that is, the best possible treatment for their dollar.

It is with this more recent idea of the patient as highly involved in the healthcare process (rather than acting as a passive recipient) that facilities around the world have begun to be able to enlist patients in the infection control and disease prevention process as well.


Patient Participation in Disease Prevention

Preventing the spread of disease and infection in healthcare facilities is ultimately up to the staff of those facilities. However, with patients taking on a more active role in the healthcare process, enlisting patients in disease prevention is more possible and more effective than it may have been in the past.


The Hand Hygiene Example

We know how critical proper hand hygiene is to infection control. Still, many clinicians fail to wash their hands at the rate required for efficacy. In at least one study, patients were instructed upon admission to a hospital to ask the doctors and nurses they saw if they had washed their hands. When this instruction was given, soap consumption at the facility increase by 34%. These results indicate that the simple act of a patient asking a reasonable question is enough to improve clinician adherence to infection control guidelines.


How to Educate Patients

It is not possible nor is it desirable to give every patient a full explanation and training as to proper infection control methods and techniques. Patients do not need to be experts in disease prevention. However, by educating patients on the fact that it is okay for them to participate in infection control and ask questions of their clinicians, infection control can improve dramatically. This type of education can take different forms: from offering an instruction at admission to having nurses and doctors wear badges that encourage patients to ask about their hand hygiene. The best way to empower patients to participate in infection control is to let them know they are allowed to do so.


How to Empower Patients

Of course, disease prevention and infection control is not limited to healthcare facilities. Patient education can be hugely helpful in the community setting as well, empowering people to practice good hand hygiene along with encouraging other activities that promote health. It is the job of healthcare facilities to be promoter of health of all types in their communities and not only inside their own walls.

By allowing and encouraging patients to participate in their own healthcare, the chances that more diseases will be prevented and will be spread less easily rise dramatically. While healthcare facility staff are certainly on the frontlines of  infection control best practices, it is important not to forget the essential role that patients themselves can play.

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