The last time you walked into a patient’s hospital room, what was touching the floor? A purse or briefcase? A cell phone charger? The call button? The TV remote? A blood pressure cuff? Pulse ox? Water bottle?

I don’t know about you, but whenever I see high-touch items like these casually dropped or placed on the hospital floor, I cringe. Until recently, however, I didn’t have any data to back up my revulsion.

For better or for worse, I do now. Yes, bacteria and viruses really can get transferred from patients, to floors, and back up again to other patients, health care providers, and even visitors.

According to a recent study published in the American Journal of Infection Control, patient room floors in five Cleveland-area hospitals were often contaminated with health care-associated pathogens, and objects on the floor frequently resulted in the transfer of pathogens to hands.

Of particular concern, the study found that C. difficile (Clostridium difficile) was the most frequently recovered pathogen from patient room floors. The frequency of contamination was similar in each of the five hospitals studied and in patient rooms and bathrooms, alike.

How should this impact your day-to-day practice? Here’s what I think:

1. If you aren’t already educating patients and visitors to avoid putting personal items directly on the floor, start doing so.

2. If and when items land on the floor, make sure that patients and visitors have access to sanitizing wipes to clean those items, and remind them to do just that.

3. Educate your coworkers on the importance of using sanitizing wipes on items that have touched the floor.

4. Remind patients and health care workers to wash hands or to use hand sanitizers frequently and as per hospital policy, but also after touching items that may have been in contact with the floor.

5. Advocate for institutions to provide patients and visitors with more hooks for hanging up items that might otherwise end up on the floor.

6. Work with environmental services to improve the efficacy of your institution’s current floor cleaning. Does your hospital use sporicidal agents or ultraviolet-C room decontamination? Find out and voice concerns if you have them.

But the buck doesn’t stop on the floor.

According to a study in the Journal of Hospital Infection last year, patients’ nonslip socks are frequently contaminated with methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and vancomycin-resistant enterococci (VRE). In fact, 85% of the nonslip socks tested were contaminated with VRE. Ick!

Here again I see a role for nurses in educating patients and caregivers to help prevent pathogen transfer:

  • Teach proper doffing techniques for sock removal.
  • Advise patients to refrain from touching socks with their hands unless necessary.
  • Provide clean socks often.
  • Provide hand-sanitizing opportunities throughout the day.

Likewise, similar research in World Journal of Microbiology and Biotechnology has suggested that wheelchairs could be a source of pathogen dissemination in health care facilities. Which, I venture, gives nurses a chance to remind patients and coworkers to clean their hands after taking wheelchairs for a spin. And it certainly couldn’t hurt to disinfect the wheels on a regular basis.

Finally, the ubiquitous smartphone: Recent research finds that mobile phones serve as reservoirs of infection in the health care environment. The study, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, looked at genetically identical strains of Staphylococcus aureus recovered from mobile phones and palms and fingers of users and multiple users. The results reinforce, yet again, the need for frequent hand washing or hand sanitizing throughout the day for patients and health care providers—particularly after touching common items like phones.

Spring is always a time for a fresh start and thanks to the research I’ve covered today, it seems we’ve got even more great reasons to clean up and clean often. Now, if only I could get my family to help by putting away their phones and picking their stuff up off the floors at home!

Angela Ballard, RN, EMT

Angela Ballard is a registered nurse and emergency medical technician living in Northern California. She's also a professional writer specializing in health, wellness, and biotech -- writing websites, newsletters, blogs, and more. To help her (and you) keep up with the latest research, Angela co-hosts a scientific and medical podcast called "Medically Clear" (find it on iTunes). She's also co-author of the award-winning hiking book "A Blistered Kind of Love" (Mountaineers Books). In her free time Angela volunteers for Guide Dogs for the Blind and Marin Villages, an organization that helps seniors remain in their own homes. She loves to run, travel, and spend time with her husband and two children.

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