In the world of healthcare, infections acquired during a hospital stay have long been associated with superbugs lurking in healthcare facilities. However, recent genetic data has revealed a different story. It turns out that the majority of health care-associated infections are actually caused by harmless bacteria that patients already have on their bodies before they even set foot in the hospital.

The Cost and Impact of Surgical Site Infections

Among various health care-associated infections, surgical site infections pose a significant challenge. A study conducted in 2013 revealed that surgical site infections contribute greatly to the annual costs of hospital-acquired infections, amounting to over 33 percent of the total expenditure of US$9.8 billion. These infections also lead to hospital readmissions and even death following surgery.

Despite hospitals’ efforts to prevent surgical site infections through stringent protocols and measures, infections still occur following roughly 1 in 30 procedures. This raises concerns, especially considering that antibiotic resistance, a global issue, is expected to contribute to a rise in infection rates post-surgery.

A New Approach to Studying Infections

A team of physician-scientists at Harborview Medical Center at the University of Washington conducted a study focusing on infections in spinal surgery to understand why these infections persist despite preventive measures. Utilizing new technologies, they analyzed different species of bacteria and their antibiotic resistance genes simultaneously.

The study revealed that 86 percent of bacteria causing infections after spine surgery were genetically identical to the bacteria present in patients before the surgery. More alarmingly, nearly 60 percent of these infections were resistant to the preventive antibiotics administered during surgery, indicating that the source of antibiotic resistance was from microbes the patients already harbored unknowingly.

Understanding that surgical infections stem from the patient’s microbiome presents a new opportunity for medical teams to personalize infection prevention methods. Rather than following a one-size-fits-all approach, tailored treatment based on a patient’s microbiome could prove more effective in preventing infections post-surgery.

While current infection prevention protocols focus on maintaining sterility in the physical environment, the future lies in personalized approaches to infection prevention. By utilizing information about a patient’s microbiome, clinicians could select more targeted antimicrobials, potentially leading to better outcomes for patients undergoing surgical procedures.

The traditional belief that hospital infections stem from superbugs within healthcare facilities has been challenged by new genetic findings. By understanding the role of a patient’s microbiome in surgical site infections, healthcare providers can adopt a more individualized and targeted approach to preventing infections, ultimately benefiting both hospitals and patients alike.


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