According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, infections acquired while in a hospital—whether as a patient, visitor or employee—cost almost 100,000 American lives and nearly $40 billion annually.

A team effort

While hospitals have protocols in place to prevent disease transmission by doctors, nurses and other staff, 75 percent of the people at most hospitals are members of the public—people visiting sick friends and loved ones, so effective prevention requires patients and visitors to participate as well.

"Many hospitals now require staff to get annual flu shots, but patients and visitors can be the least protected people in the building."

Something as simple as sitting on the edge of a patient’s bed can contaminate sterile environments and introduce pathogens where none were before, and a patient who contracts an infection during a hospital stay will spend an average of nine times longer recuperating. Visitors are also at risk, potentially exposing themselves and their families to diseases like pertussis or strains of the flu that had been confined to the hospital.

The environment in which care takes place is just as important as the medical personnel that provide the care, according to IntelliCentrics, a security company specializing in hospitals and health care facilities. Following a few extra steps can make a big difference.

Safety is simple

Know before you go. Most Americans have a choice between several different health care facilities, since 87 percent of hospital visits are scheduled in advance. The Joint Commission, a health care accreditation organization, recommends asking a primary care physician to suggest the best hospitals and speaking to hospital representatives before scheduling a procedure. The Medicare website also has a free online hospital comparison tool: medicare.gov/hospitalcompare.

Get a flu shot. Many hospitals now require staff to get annual flu shots, but patients and visitors can be the least protected people in the building. The CDC recommends this website to find vaccination locations nearby: vaccine.healthmap.org.

Wash your hands, often. According to the World Health Organization, most hospital-acquired infections could be prevented through simple and consistent hand washing. That means visitors should wash their hands after arriving at the hospital, as well as before leaving. The procedure is so important, The National Patient Safety Foundation even suggests that patients remind doctors and nurses to wash their hands before contact.

Wipe your feet. Just like hand washing, this simple measure prevents new pathogens from entering the hospital and infecting patients. Do it again on the way out to keep from tracking home bugs from the hospital.