Headed to the hospital? Here are three commonsense steps you can take to reduce the risk of infection, says James Davis, a senior infection-prevention analyst at ECRI Institute, a nonprofit medical research organization in Plymouth Meeting.

  • If your doctors or nurses seem to have forgotten to wash their hands, tactfully remind them. "Patients are intimidated ... and they don't think to speak up. Being your own advocate when it comes to infection prevention is worth pursuing," Davis says. And for the hardy spores of a nasty microbe called Clostridium difficile, alcohol-based hand sanitizers are not enough. Only soap and water will do.
  • Before you go for an elective procedure, ask doctors for their infection rates, or look up the hospital's track record.  "If I was getting my knee done, and I asked my orthopod, 'What's your infection rate?' and he says 'I don't know,' I might be thinking about maybe seeing somebody else," Davis says. Hospital-wide infection rates are available at www.medicare.gov/hospitalcompare. More detailed data on Pennsylvania hospitals can be found at www.health.pa.gov and in New Jersey at web.doh.state.nj.us/apps2/hpr/.
  • Urge visitors to practice "respiratory etiquette." Visitors should wash hands, and if they are sick, they should wear a disposable mask or stay home. Getting a flu shot also is recommended before visiting an immune-compromised patient.