Not a long ago, I received a call from a friend working in a local pediatric clinic. One of her partners had just seen a young child with an unusual rash. The diagnosis? Crusted scabies.

Sarcoptes scabiei var. hominis, the mite that causes typical scabies, also causes crusted or Norwegian scabies. These terms refer to severe infestations that occur in individuals who are immune compromised or debilitated. The rash is characterized by vesicles and thick crusts and may or may not be itchy. Because patients with crusted scabies can be infested with as many as 2 million mites, transmission from very brief skin-to-skin contact is possible, and outbreaks have occurred in health care facilities and other institutional settings.

That was the reason for my friend’s call. “What do we do for the doctors and nurses in the clinic who saw the patient?” she wanted to know.

“Everyone wore gloves, right?” I asked. There was silence on the other end of the phone.

After a quick consultation with our health department, every health care provider (HCP) who touched the patient without gloves was treated preemptively with topical permethrin. None went on to develop scabies. The experience prompted me to think about the challenges of infection prevention in ambulatory care.

Both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP Committee on Infectious Diseases, “Infection prevention and control in pediatric ambulatory settings,” Pediatrics 2007;20[3]:650-65 ) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention ( Guide to Infection Prevention for Outpatient Settings: Minimum Expectations for Safe Care ) have published recommendations for infection prevention in outpatient settings. Both organizations emphasize the importance of standard precautions. According to the CDC, standard precautions “are the minimum infection prevention practices that apply to all patient care, regardless of suspected or confirmed infection status of the patient, in any setting where health care is delivered.” They are designed to protect HCPs, as well as prevent us from spreading infections among patients. Standard precautions include:

• Hand hygiene.

• Use of personal protective equipment (gloves, gowns, masks).

• Safe injection practices.

• Safe handling of potentially contaminated equipment or surfaces in the patient environment.

• Respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette.

Some of these elements are likely second nature to office-based pediatricians. Hands must be cleaned before and after every patient encounter or an encounter with the patient’s immediate environment. “Cover your cough” signs have become ubiquitous in ambulatory care waiting rooms, even as we acknowledge the difficulties associated with expecting toddlers to wear masks or use a tissue to contain their coughs and sneezes.

Other elements of standard precautions may receive increased attention because the consequences of noncompliance are perceived to be dangerous or severe. For example, we know that failure to reliably employ safe injection practices (see table) has resulted in transmission of blood-borne pathogens, including hepatitis B and C, in ambulatory settings.

In my experience, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the ambulatory setting is the element of standard precautions that is the least understood and perhaps the most underutilized. It’s certainly easier in the inpatient setting, where we use transmission-based precautions, and colorful isolation signs instruct us to put on gown and gloves when we visit the patient with viral gastroenteritis, or gown, gloves, and mask for the child with acute viral respiratory tract infection. In the office, we expect the HCP to anticipate what kind of contact with blood or body fluids is likely and choose PPE accordingly.

Of course, anticipation can be tricky. Gowns, for example, are only required during procedures or activities when contact with blood and body fluids is likely. In routine office-based care, these sorts of procedures are uncommon. Incision and drainage of an abscess is one example of a procedure that might warrant protection of one’s clothing with a gown. Conversely, the need for a mask might arise several times a day, as these are worn to protect the mouth, nose, and eyes “during procedures that are likely to generate splashes or sprays of blood or other body fluids.” Examination of a coughing patient is a common “procedure” likely to results in sprays of saliva. Use of a mask can protect the examiner from potential exposures to Bordetella pertussis, Mycoplasma pneumoniae, and a host of respiratory viruses.

While the AAP has been careful to point out that gloves are not needed for the routine care of well children, they should be used when “there is the potential to contact blood, body fluids, mucous membranes, nonintact skin, or potentially infectious material.” In our world, potentially infectious material might include a cluster of vesicles thought to be herpes simplex, the honey-crusted lesions of impetigo, or the weeping, crusted rash of Norwegian scabies.

My own office had a powerful reminder about the importance of standard precautions last year when we were referred a young infant with recurrent fevers and a mostly dry, peeling rash. As we learned in medical school, the mucocutanous lesions of congenital syphilis can be highly contagious. In accordance with AAP recommendations, all HCPs who examined this child without the protection of gloves underwent serologic testing for syphilis. Fortunately, there were no transmissions!

Published data about infectious disease exposures and the transmission of infectious diseases in the outpatient setting, either from patients to health care workers or among patients, are largely limited to outbreak or case reports. A 1991 review identified 53 reports of infectious disease transmission in outpatient settings between 1961 and 1990 ( JAMA 1991;265(18): 2377-81 ). Transmission occurred in medical and dental offices, clinics, emergency departments, ophthalmology offices, and alternative care settings that included chiropractic clinics and an acupuncture practice. A variety of pathogens were involved, including measles, adenovirus, hepatitis B, atypical mycobacteria, and Streptococcus pyogenes. The authors concluded that many of the outbreaks and episodes of transmission could have been prevented “if existing infection control guidelines,” including what we now consider standard precautions, had been utilized. Many reports published in the intervening 25 years have come to similar conclusions.

So why don’t HCPs yet follow standard precautions, including appropriate use of PPE? The reasons are complex and multifactorial. We’re all busy and lack of time is a common complaint. Gowns, gloves, masks, and alcohol hand gel aren’t always readily available. Some HCPs may not be knowledgeable about the elements of standard precautions while others may not understand the risks to themselves and their patients associated with nonadherence. Finally, some organizations have not established clear expectations related to infection prevention and compliance with AAP and CDC recommendations.

Several years ago, at the very beginning of the H1N1 influenza epidemic, a colleague of mine working in a pediatric practice saw a patient complaining of fever, lethargy, and myalgia. Not surprisingly, the patient’s rapid influenza test was positive. My colleague recalls that she was handed the result before she ever walked into the room – without any PPE – to see the patient.

“This was different than my usual routine at the hospital,” she told me. The expectation at the hospital was gown, gloves, and masks for any patient with influenza or influenzalike illness. At the office though, there was no such expectation, and providers did not routinely wear masks, even when seeing patients with respiratory symptoms. My colleague wasn’t reckless or rebellious. She was simply conforming to the culture in that office, and following the behavioral cues of more senior physicians in the practice. Subsequently, she developed severe influenza infection requiring a prolonged hospital stay.

It’s time to change the culture. As a first step, perform a quick audit in the office, using the AAP’s “Infection prevention and control in pediatric ambulatory settings” as a guide.

Dr. Bryant is a pediatrician specializing in infectious diseases at the University of Louisville (Ky.) and Kosair Children’s Hospital, also in Louisville. She had no relevant financial disclosures.

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