It's no secret — germy surfaces (including soft surfaces such as hospital curtains) in the patient environment can make people sick. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 20 hospital patients will acquire an infection during their stay.

The infectious germs making patients sick come from a variety of sources. But could some of those infections arise from contaminated hospital curtains put around patient beds to maintain their privacy? Studies support that the possibility exists.

The "American Journal for Infection Control" recently reported that within one week of laundering, 92 percent of hospital privacy curtains were contaminated with potentially dangerous bacteria such as MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) and VRE (vancomycin-resistant enterococcus).

"Research studies show that both hard and porous surfaces (such as hospital curtains) in hospital rooms are loaded with the kinds of pathogens patients carry around," says Benjamin Tanner, a microbiologist, immunologist and president of Antimicrobial Test Laboratories, Round Rock, Texas.

The question then becomes the rate of transfer from surfaces to patients. Tanner, who authored the book "Legal Aspects of Infectious Diseases," believes transfer rates are higher than many people think. He cites research, performed by the now-deceased Dr. Patricia Rusin at the University of Arizona-Tucson, which looked at germ transfer rates from different surfaces to people.

"This study found that fabric and porous surfaces, such as hospital curtains, are efficient transmitters of germs," he says. "Though they are not as efficient as hard surfaces, germs survive better on porous surfaces, making these areas of equal concern to patient health."

This reality is where many departments struggle, as soft surfaces such as hospital privacy curtains can be very challenging to properly clean and disinfect.

Barriers To Change

"We do this great job of cleaning and disinfecting surfaces to make everything ready for new patients, but we leave dirty hospital privacy curtains hanging three feet away. There are no rules for how often these curtains should be changed," says Darrel Hicks, director of environmental services at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Mo., and author of "Infection Prevention for Dummies."

Hicks is right in that there are no defined standards dictating how or how often hospital curtains should be cleaned and disinfected. This gives departments carte blanche to determine necessary cleaning frequency.

"Some hospitals change these curtains when they are ‘visibly soiled,'" he says. "But I've seen discussion boards where hospital officials admit to changing hospital curtains just once or twice a year."

Among the barriers to maintaining these curtains is the fact that hospitals often lack enough curtains to launder one set and hang new ones in their place.

It can also cost a lot of money to wash hospital curtains in-house or send them out for laundering. Washing bulky 12- to 14-foot privacy curtains can cost and average of $25 a private room and up to $45 a semi-private room, which doesn't include labor costs associated with removing curtains and hanging new ones.

"Whose budget is that going to come out of when hospitals are looking for ways to cut corners?" Hicks asks.

He believes establishing a universal standard for hospital curtains would be a giant step toward positive change.

Ciick here to read about how to clean these soft surfaces.
Ronnie Garrett is a freelancer based in Fort Atkinson, Wis., and is a frequent contributor to Housekeeping Solutions.