Can facility design cut down on hospital-acquired infections?

When it comes to the fight against hospital-acquired infections, the Windy City appears to be squarely on the front lines.

The University of Chicago's new Center for Care and Discovery plays host to the Hospital Microbiome Project, a three-year program in which scientists study how facility design and environmental factors affect patient-threatening bacteria, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Four hospitals in the Windy City also participate in the Chicago Antimicrobial Resistance and Infection Prevention Epicenter, one of five research programs funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The program recently touted its ability to slash rates of carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE) infections, which the hospitals accomplished by isolating infected patients, requiring healthcare workers to treat them using personal protective equipment, and bathing them in a specialized antiseptic.

For the Hospital Microbiome Project, scientists began by collecting DNA data while the hospital's new Center for Care and Discovery was under construction, then documented how the building's microscopic life changed once it opened. They then focused on 10 patient rooms spanning two floors, using sensors to measure bacterial growth.

Though the scientists are still analyzing the data, they already have discovered a whole host of factors that affect the kinds of bacteria patients encounter in hospitals--including ventilation, humidity levels, the type of material countertops and other surfaces are made of, and even the presence of windows and cellphones.

With this data, the researchers hope they can eventually alter patient rooms to lessen exposure to dangerous pathogens and heighten exposure to protective bacteria. "We could make the hospital itself into a treatment for the patient," Emily Landon, an infection-control epidemiologist from the University of Chicago, told the newspaper.

The CDC hopes to replicate the four Chicago hospitals' CRE-control success at other U.S. hospitals in its effort to slash CRE infection rates by 50 percent, part of a larger, White House-driven initiative to aggressively curb the threat of such superbugs. All types of hospital-acquired infections (HAIs) are an ever-present issue in the healthcare industry, particularly as federal financial incentives encourage organizations to reduce preventable harms and cut down on readmissions. A 2013 report also served as a major call to action, as it found that medical errors--including HAIs--are the third-leading cause of death in the United States.

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