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Hiding in plain sight: Why hospitals need to pay attention to privacy curtains in patient rooms

MRSA bacteria carry high morbidity and mortality rates, making the disease a significant threat to patient safety.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor


A study published in the American Journal of Infection Control shows that the majority of freshly laundered privacy curtains hanging in patient rooms over the course of 21 days acquired the deadly MRSA bacteria after two weeks, possibly denoting an important safety standard on when privacy curtains should be laundered and a surprising threat to patient safety and quality of care.


Not only are hospital-acquired infections a point of potential government penalization for hospitals and health systems, but drug resistant pathogens like MRSA bacteria carry high morbidity and mortality rates, making them a significant threat to patient safety. 


Researchers for the study used 10 freshly and commercially laundered privacy curtains, and eight of them were placed them in various patient rooms. Cultures were taken from the curtains over the course of 21 days in areas where people were likely to hold the curtains. The other two curtains were placed in areas without direct patient or caregiver contact, as a control sample. No rooms were occupied by patients with MRSA. The curtains could be moved for privacy needs and were changed prior to day 21 if they became visibly soiled. 

While the control curtains stayed clean over the 21-day period, the others became increasingly contaminated, and because the samples taken were from areas where people hold curtains, it is likely that the contamination was due to direct contact. By day 14, 87.5 percent of test curtains grew MRSA. 


"The presence of MRSA and the number of colony-forming units, or CFUs, suggest that curtains are a source of cross-contamination in hospitals. These data suggest that interventions to clean or routinely replace curtains should occur approximately 14 days after the curtains are hung. Additional studies examining the relationship between curtain contamination and patient contamination should be undertaken," the study said.


Given the study results, the 14-day mark following installation of newly-laundered privacy curtains may represent an important intervention point. Other research has proposed 14 days as the minimum amount of time that curtains should hang before requiring cleaning. Other studies indicate that hospitals should at least adhere to cleanliness standards that apply to food preparation environments. The researchers said the sample size of their study was relatively small so further research is warranted.


There is a high-risk for cross-contamination on various hospital surfaces and direct contact with patients, and the more thoroughly hospitals inventory and take ownership of intervention points, the safer patients will be. Hospitals can also avoid more penalties to do with HAIs and morbidity by thwarting preventable safety hazards such as transference of bacteria.

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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