Real Voices interview: Patricia Folan
Lead nurse in infection control at University College London Hospital
What are the most common infections you encounter?
I see a lot of MRSA. This bacterium can infect wounds and also where needles have been put under the skin. At the more severe end of the spectrum MRSA can cause infections of the bloodstream. We also see increasing numbers of patients infected with tuberculosis, and chicken pox, which spreads very easily, particularly on the children’s wards. It’s very dangerous in the neonatal unit.
Which ones do you think are becoming more common?
MRSA is becoming more common, mainly because the bacterium is becoming resistant to more and more antibiotics used in the community and in the hospital environment. We are also seeing more TB, which has been on a steady increase for the last 20 years.
Which infection do you most fear?
Norovirus. It’s the winter vomiting and diarrhoea bug. It’s indiscriminate, causing symptoms in patients, staff and visitors. It’s so infectious we’ve had to shut down wards. In the past we’ve even had to close entire hospitals. It takes up a lot of our time and a lot of staff are off sick with it. It’s a logistical nightmare.
How does your job affect your home life?
It hasn’t made me any cleaner. I am hygienic but you still wouldn’t want to operate on somebody on my dining table. When I was a front-line nurse directly responsible for patients on the wards, my life was a lot more stressful.
Are you ever worried about catching an infection?
No. Having a good knowledge of the infections out there and knowing how they spread makes me worry less. I’ve worked at the hospital for 17 years and I’ve never taken an infection home. The handrails on the tube or the bus are much more filthy than anything in the hospital.
What is the key to infection control?
It’s what you learned at nursery. In a word, hand-washing. You’re not likely to transmit organisms between patients if you wash your hands. That involves patient input as well. If you’ve got dirty hands and scratch your wound, you’re potentially going to infect it.
What are the main challenges now and in the future?
Up until about five years ago, the challenge was just to be taken seriously. Thankfully, the authorities now recognise the importance of infection control. A wound infection, for example, lengthens a patient’s stay in hospital by an average of four days, which results in a major cost. Now we are getting the resources we need to collect and analyse data on different infections. In time, people are going to have a say in where they are treated.
If you have high rates of infection people simply aren’t going to come to your hospital for treatment. So the challenge for the future is to get everyone to improve on their hygiene to keep infection rates down. It’s an ongoing battle and it involves everyone.