Do hospital privacy curtains spread deadly germs? What study says

Flickr/londoninflames
Flickr/londoninflames

(CBS) Privacy may not be the only thing hospital curtains give patients.

Pictures: Deadly skin infection? 12 graphic photos that could save your life

A new study suggests privacy curtains may be a source of infectious bacteria, including potentially deadly staph.

For the study - presented at an infectious diseases conference on Monday in Chicago - scientists swabbed 43 hospital curtains twice a week for three weeks. They analyzed 180 samples, and found germs on 119. Twenty-six percent of curtains tested positive for the potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant Staphylococcus aureus bacteria known as MRSA, and 44 percent tested positive for a form of Enterococcus bacteria - some of which were antibiotic resistant.

Researchers also placed 13 new curtains in a hospital for the study. Within a week, 12 were contaminated.

"The hospital environment plays an important role in the transmission of infections in the health care setting, and it's clear that these privacy curtains are potentially important sites of contamination because they are frequently touched by patients and providers," study author Dr. Michael Ohl, assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Iowa, told Reuters.

Dr. Ohl said there's a cheap and practical solution health care workers can use to prevent infection.

"The most intuitive, common sense strategy is to wash hands after pulling the curtain and before seeing the patient," he said.

But Dr. Peter Pronovost, patient safety expert and professor of critical care medicine at Johns Hopkins University, told CBS News in an email that washing hands might not be enough.

"While we need to continue to encourage hand hygiene, this study points to the need for technologies to help prevent infections," like microbial resistant curtains, he said.

Does that mean that a patient's risk for infection is at the mercy of the hospital?

Not according Dr. Robert Glatter, editorial board member for Medscape Emergency Medicine. He told CBS News in an email that hospital patients can be proactive about reducing their risk for getting a potentially dangerous infection.

Said Glatter, "Patients should not be intimidated or afraid to ask doctors if they washed their hands after noticing the provider touched a medical curtain."