The Mölnlycke O.R. blog

Scientific miscommunication: Not painting the whole picture

By : Hayley Hughes, September 12 2014Posted in: The Mölnlycke O.R. blog

The second in a three-part series on the need for media responsibility and clearer healthcare communication, as issues like antibiotic resistance and public health epidemics like Ebola make headlines.

I attended an infection control conference a couple of years ago that highlighted antibiotic stewardship programmes becoming high on hospitals’ agendas as a means of combating antibiotic resistance. During one lecture, a microbiologist suggested that multidrug resistant organisms (MDROs) are evolving at such an increased rate that hospitals are turning to last-resort drugs earlier, and evidence suggests that no antibiotics will be able to kill MDROs in 10-15 years1.

These predictions made me think of what could result in panicked “doomsday messages” from the mainstream media. We know there is a wide chasm between the scientific voice and the public media voice when conveying health and scientific information, after all. But in this case, I thought back to the radio advert I was so pleased about in my last blog post. A sober but factual account of the coming age of antibiotic resistance.

So if we are not to use antibiotics, what are we going to do instead to save us from going back to the Dark Ages and losing lives to infections that have been held at bay since the widespread use of penicillin in the 1950s?

The problem is that bacteria have been around for millennia and will most probably be around long after human beings are gone from this earth so we can never get rid of them completely due to their excellent evolution skills. And actually, bacteria live in harmony with us every day on our bodies and act as our friends, keeping fungal infections at bay. But when it comes to surgery, the pesky little blighters can move into the wound and cause a surgical site infection (SSI). In the instances in which bacteria do need to be eradicated, antibiotics are usually needed if there is an increased risk.

And this is where I have a bone to pick with mainstream media. Even if they are telling an otherwise even-handed story about the end of antibiotics – or the need to use antibiotics responsibly and sparingly, they are not telling the whole story. Where are the alternatives?

The answer may be staring us in the face: Antiseptics!

Who hasn’t heard the phrase “prevention is better than cure”? With regard to antiseptic use to help prevent surgical site infection (SSI), this is truer than ever. You see, because antiseptics are used in much higher concentrations than antibiotics, it is virtually impossible for bacteria to build up a resistance to them.

How do antiseptics fit into the incomplete picture painted by the media – and how are they employed in the healthcare field?

Major antiseptic prevention measures include preoperative body washing and surgical site disinfection within the operating room as well as the most obvious application – hand washing! Why isn’t the media telling this story?

In truth, it’s not an exciting story, and until recently it would not have made headlines. But with norovirus, swine flu and now the onslaught of the Ebola virus in 2014, suddenly simple but effective preventive measures, such as good hand hygiene, could become headline news. This, of course, is because Ebola, being a nearly always fatal disease, grabs headlines, and it just so happens that there is a cost effective means for helping to prevent the spread of infections. Hand washing reduces the number of pathogens on the hands and interrupts the opportunity to transfer organisms between potential patients.

If the general public and healthcare workers were to increase their hand washing practices to prevent virus transmission from happening in the first place, this would be far easier and infinitely better than letting a virus take hold that would require a curative response rather than a simple preventive action.

The antibiotic/antiseptic issue is but one matter where a message has been twisted or misunderstood – or disseminated in an incomplete form. What other kinds of messages have gained traction publicly that were misunderstood and that affected your workplace?

In the next post, we will look at how even the healthcare industry needs to increase its hand washing practices and why the Ebola outbreak may propel humble hand washing to fulfilling its true potential.


  1. Jarman, B., Crook, D., Patel, B., Strauss, K., Chapman, K., Tanner, J., Lowe, S. and Egan, K. (2012) 'Reducing HCAIs Conference 2012: Reducing Infection: Improving Health Outcomes'
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The surgical and wound care environment is always changing. The Mölnlycke Health Care blog addresses topics and trends in surgery and wound care. Among these topics are efficiency, health economy, infection control and patient safety. Read more about this blog and how to comment


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