Superbugs spreading because hospitals are overcrowded and staff overworked

Australian researchers say overcrowded hospitals and the pressures of high work loads may be contributing to the spread of drug resistant superbugs.

The researchers from the the University of Queensland and Princess Alexandra Hospital in Brisbane say the pressure for greater efficiency by reducing the number of hospital beds and increasing patient turnover has resulted in highly stressed health-care systems with unwelcome side-effects.

Dr. Michael Whitby and his colleagues say as the populations grow, and people live longer the problem is bound to worsen.

The team carried out a review of several studies on the spread of drug-resistant germs, and found that when hospitals are filled to capacity they are more likely to have outbreaks of methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other infections.

MRSA is spread by the hands, staff clothing and contaminated medical equipment and infections can range from boils to more severe infections that affect the bloodstream, lungs and surgical sites.

Dr. Archie Clements, a population health specialist at the University of Queensland, who led the research says a number of studies have shown that doctors, nurses and other health care workers do not wash their hands as well and as frequently as recommended, and this becomes more of a problem during times of understaffing and high workload.

The researchers say overcrowded hospitals also struggle to isolate patients with MRSA and other dangerous infections and note that in Australia, the number of public hospital beds per person fell by 40 percent between 1982 and 2000, while 14 percent more patients were treated.

The researchers say similar trends have been observed in other developed countries such as Britain, the United States and Canada and hospitals often cope by treating patients in a single day instead of admitting them as inpatients.

Dr. Whitby says the aging workforce is also a problem - in the United States the average-age of nurses has increased from 37.4 years in 1983 to 46.8 years in 2004.

Experts say MRSA killed an estimated 19,000 Americans in 2005 and made 94,000 seriously ill, and as many as 2,000 Australian hospital patients are infected every year and about 35 per cent die.

Dr. Clements says by 2050 the requirement for hospital beds is predicted to increase by 70 to 130 per cent and understaffing is both an ongoing and long-term future problem with severe consequences for hospital patients.

Dr. Clements says there is an urgent need for detailed study on the effects of resource constraints on the dynamics of MRSA infection but other experts say there is enough proof of the scale of the problem and it is action which is now needed.

The research is published in the current edition of the Lancet Infectious Diseases.

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