Operating rooms are supposed to be sterile to help lower the risk of surgical patients acquiring an infection. But a new report shows that surgical team members are actually increasing the risk of infection by walking in and out of the operating room too much during surgery.

The study, published in the journal Orthopedics, reveals that in 190 surgeries lasting from about an hour-and-a-half to a little more than three hours, the operating room doors opened every 2.5 minutes — and remained open for nearly 10 minutes on average.

When operating room doors are opened, it decreases the sterility of the surgical suite. The reversed air flow essentially undercuts the ventilation and other systems that are designed to keep the environment sterile and reduce the risk of infection. The study showed that, in most cases, the doors were opened “long enough for positive room pressure to be defeated, causing air to flow into the operating room.”

The study analyzed how many times operating room doors opened and closed, indicating how frequently the staff came in and out. The openings and closings were tracked by a sensory device that read the pressure in the room and let researchers follow the rates without staff knowing.

While the study showed that door openings were unavoidable at times, the study also revealed there was more traffic than necessary. Some of the findings include:

  • In about 40 percent of the surgeries, the opened doors led air flow from outside into the operating room.
  • The longer the surgery lasted, the more often staff would step out and the longer the doors were left open, thereby jeopardizing the room’s sterile conditions.
  • When the doors were closed after being opened, sterile conditions quickly returned to normal.

So why are operating room doors being opened so frequently by surgical team members?

According to researchers, the excessive operating-room traffic is indicative of inefficiencies. And the main inefficiency is surgical team members not having what they need in the proper place — or not having it at all.