The University of Newcastle, Australia

Stopping the spread of superbugs

Dr Lynette Bowen is determined to preserve the effectiveness of antibiotics and halt the spread of antibiotic-resistant ‘superbug’ bacteria by researching hygiene-based methods of preventing and reducing infections within hospital settings.

Image of Lynette Bowen

Imagine a world without antibiotics, where a minor infection could quickly become untreatable and life-threatening. Over the past decades, as microorganisms become increasingly resistant to antibiotics, researchers have been working overtime to outwit superbugs and improve infection control worldwide.

Dr Lynette Bowen’s research is contributing to the solution by posing an important and life-saving question: How can we prevent infections in the first place? Using a mixed-method and collaborative approach to research, Lyn is looking at ways to control the spread of drug-resistant bacteria where they are most commonly found—in our hospitals.

“Reducing the risk of infection transmission in clinical settings is a high priority for our world.

“My research is directed towards reducing the risk of patients acquiring infection as a result of receiving healthcare.

“Being insightful about how we apply preventative practices such as asepsis—the notion of being free from infection or infectious materials—will reduce the need for antimicrobials, reduce the cost of healthcare, reduce morbidity and mortality, and improve health outcomes for our patients.”

When drugs don’t work

The term ‘superbug’ is used to describe antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria. While antibiotics have been effective at saving lives since their introduction in the 1940s, modern strains of bacteria are adapting and becoming dangerously resilient.

“We are moving to a new era where microorganisms are resistant to our antimicrobial medications. This is a return to the past, when a simple wound infection could develop into a life-threatening situation, such as we only hear about in history texts.”

Overuse of antibiotics in recent years has heavily contributed to the superbug crisis. The more we use antibiotics to treat infections, the quicker bacteria can adapt and become impervious to treatments.

In response, hospitals are now prioritising alternative methods to prevent and manage infections without using antibiotics as a first-line strategy—and researchers like Lyn are leading the charge.

“We need to remove our reliance on antimicrobials and ensure we consistently practice with a focus on asepsis, where we do not transmit infection from one person to another in our clinical settings.”

Cleaning up our act

The looming threat of antibiotic-resistant bacteria has made infection prevention and control within hospital settings a global concern. A recent and worrying study from the University of Michigan found that around 14 per cent of hospital patients had superbug antibiotic-resistant bacteria on their hands or nostrils early in their hospital stay, and nearly one-third of objects touched by patients within the hospital setting came back positive for known resistant bacteria.

Lyn asserts that behaviour-based strategies, such as improving basic hygiene practices, could go a long way towards preventing and controlling infections in Australian hospitals.

“We can use non-drug forms of control—which appear to be obvious but are actually under-researched—such as good housekeeping and hygiene to reduce the risks associated with harmful bacteria.”

But before we start eliminating all bacteria from clinical environments without discrimination, further research is needed into what bacteria is harmful and what could potential be considered as ‘good’ or ‘healthy’.

“We need to better understand the microorganisms in our natural surroundings, recognising what is beneficial and what is harmful.”

Prioritising health and hygiene

Proactive hygiene is especially critical during and after surgery, when patients are highly vulnerable to infection. Lyn’s most recent research projects focus on promoting the concept of asepsis (infection-free environments) and examining how well health professionals understand the notion of surgical conscience, which guides ethical decisions in the operating room and during recovery.

“The concept of ‘surgical conscience’ has never really been explored. It is described in literature, but until now, there has been no evidence collected to support the description. Our cross-national study, led by Associate Professor Jed Duff, is a world-first.”

Patient safety advocates like Lyn emphasise the importance of surgical conscience in promoting accountability and preventing surgical wound infections. It helps to ensure that aseptic techniques are followed closely during surgical interventions and that any risks are reported so appropriate infection control measures can be carried out swiftly.

“By providing an evidence-based understanding of surgical conscience, the study will provide a platform for teaching the concept to existing and future health professionals in a more consistent and effective manner.”

Lyn is also the co-investigator for a pilot project exploring the under-researched notion of asepsis. Supported by a Mid North Coast Local Health District research grant, Lyn is investigating whether asepsis practices are currently applied effectively in real-world settings.

“There is an assumption that nurses know, and therefore practice, aseptically; however, hospital-acquired infection statistics suggest this may not be consistently occurring.

“We must understand our own actions as health professionals so we can change or adjust our practices to minimise risk to our patients.”

Lyn’s passion for best practice healthcare infuses all her work, including her innovative online and face-to-face courses based at the University’s Port Macquarie campus.

“I share relevant research results with students and encourage them to seek out evidence to support their practice. I love it when they question why they are doing something! Then I know they are thinking critically.”