Healthcare-associated infections: a threat to public health

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Patient Safety will be the focus in four issues of our newsletter this year. We want to raise awareness on the importance of this topic which, if not properly addressed, can affect the lives of millions of people. This month, we focus on healthcare-associated infections.

Healthcare-associated infections or HAIs are often related to care in the hospital, but they can occur after treatment in other settings, such as nursing homes, healthcare centres and home care. Most common infections are those affecting the urinary tract, lower respiratory tract (including pneumonia), bloodstream, and infections around the area of surgery.

Patients who do not have the ability to respond normally to an infection due to a weakened immune system, who undergo invasive procedures or spend more than 48 hours in a hospital are most at risk to acquire HAIs.

A threat to public health

Such infections pose a threat to public health in Europe and a burden on patients. In the European Union, 4,1 million patients are affected by HAIs annually, and 37 000 people die as a result of such infections.

Such figures are unacceptable. It is crucial to educate and empower patients through high-quality information and health literacy to fight this issue. EPF has called for a set of EU guidelines for providing relevant and understandable information to patients on quality and safety of care, including HAIs” said Nicola Bedlington, EPF Secretary General (link).  

20 to 30% of those infections are considered to be preventable (ECDC). Hand hygiene for instance is one of the most important prevention strategies – see our February article in this series.

However, according to a 2013 Eurobarometer survey, half of patients/family members said they received no information on the risk of healthcare-associated infections when admitted to hospital or care facility.

What’s more, legislation and guidance adopted at EU level have acknowledged the problem, but much more needs to be done in member states (European Commission, June 2014).

Patients’ participation can make a difference

Patients can contribute to the prevention of HAIs by getting actively involved during their healthcare journey. They can help identify any gaps and failures in the system, and function as a “last barrier” of safety.

Health professionals need to be trained to communicate effectively with patients and start treating patients as equal partners, encouraging patients and families to “speak up” about any concerns they may have.

All Member States should also enable patients and family members’ reporting of patient safety incidents and “near-misses” (See Reporting and learning systems for patient safety incidents across Europe).

For more information please visit this webpage or contact:

Kaisa Immonen-Charalambous, Senior Policy Adviser (,

Cristina Padeanu, Project Officer (