The next time you stay in hospital, you might be safer in a single room than on a ward. 

Research presented at the British Science Festival in Bradford on Tuesday showed that hospital patients in single rooms have less chance of getting an infection than those in wards.  By combining computer modelling with hospital data, the researchers showed that health workers’ hands are 20% more likely to be contaminated in a four-bed ward compared to a single room.

Preventing the spread of infections such as MRSA could cut costs for the NHS.   Professor Cath Noakes of the University of Leeds said “One in 15 patients who go into hospital contract an infection and that costs the NHS millions of pounds every year in extra bed days, in medication, and in staff time. Where there is a risk of infection, four-bed wards are more risky than single bed wards”.

The researchers looked at the transmission of infection in hospitals and how it is affected by the design of the building.

Since the researchers were unable to simply release superbugs into a hospital and see where they went, they used high tech mathematical models combined with both data from hospitals and from very controlled lab experiments.  The combined results showed the flow of infectious particles through the building.

Professor Cath Noakes said “When someone coughs, we can see where those particles go, where do they land in the room, what surfaces do they contaminate, and who might touch those surfaces?”

By comparing different types of wards, the researchers used this data to determine how different ventilation systems, different cleaning habits and different behaviours affect the risk of infection to the patient.

Dr Marco-Felipe King, also from the University of Leeds, said “The therapeutic value of single rooms is well known, however, the scientific evidence is still weak. We combined computer modelling, biological experimentation, and hospital observation, to understand the mechanisms by which health workers quite literally pick up germs.”

As well as understanding which surfaces the germs landed on, the researchers looked at how the germs attached to doctors and nurses.

Dr Marco-Felipe King continued “We wanted to know who touched the surfaces in the hospital rooms, so we conducted an observational study of 400 health care workers and were able to do a mathematical model to work out what was on their hands in single rooms and after caring in a four-bed room.”

Recent advances in computer simulations have allowed the researchers to model air flow moving in real time in response to doctors and nurses moving around hospital wards. The scientists say that this can be used to inform the cleaning patterns in hospitals.

Although they might be safer, single-bed rooms are more expensive than multi-bed wards. But the scientists argue that the costs could be minimised by software to indicate who the riskiest patients are, and they can then be prioritised in single bed accommodation.

Dr Susan Skelton Spesyvtseva is a British Science Association Media Fellow, and research fellow in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of St. Andrews. She was placed with BBC Scotland, funded by STFC.

Image credit: StudioTempura via flickr