Understanding the Dangers of Hospital-Acquired Infections
Roughly 2 million people develop bacterial infections every year in the United States, and approximately 250,000 cases originate in hospitals—with 23,000 leading to fatalities. Herb Kuhn, President of the Missouri Hospital Association, says there have been a small number of infections acquired in hospitals, but emphasized that they should “never happen.”
The federal government issued monetary penalties to 769 hospitals recently due to their high rates of injuries to patients. Those injuries included instances where patients acquired infections in the facility.
Infection Risk Factors
An infection is a bodily invasion and growth of foreign organisms such as bacteria, viruses, and parasites. Not all infections can be prevented, but there are some of general risk factors, including:
- Patient-related: The length of the patient’s stay at the hospital, the severity of the condition that the patient is experiencing, and the strength of the patient’s immune system.
- Organizational: Sanitary conditions within the facility, such as the cleanliness of the HVAC system, water systems, surfaces, and sterilization levels of devices and equipment.
- Staff-related: Whether clinicians and staff act to prevent the inadvertent spread of germs by washing hands regularly, and proper placement and cleaning of tubing, catheters, and topical medications on patients.
Researchers are hinting that new strains of antibiotic-resistant bacteria may soon emerge. Part of the reason is that antibiotics are heavily used in hospitals and commonly prescribed by doctors. This widespread use has accelerated the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) has taken action to reduce antibiotics use in hospitals. Now, hospitals must maintain an antibiotic stewardship program or face funding reductions.
Common Bacterial Infections in Hospitals
- MRSA. Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) is a resilient bacterium that causes several infections in humans. MRSA exists outside of the hospital setting, and often, carriers exhibit no recognizable symptoms. When carriers bring the germ into the hospital with them, it is a danger, particularly to vulnerable individuals such as the elderly, children, or the critically ill, who are likely to have deficient immune systems. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that hospital care units can reduce MRSA cases by 40% through germ-killing soaps and lotions.
- C.diff. Another bacterium that may cause major problems in a hospital setting is Clostridium difficile (C. diff). Roughly a half million people across the country are sickened by C. diff annually. The germ has a tendency to spread when people are taking antibiotics. This is illustrated by a report that showed that between 2008 and 2014 overall hospital-based infections declined by 8%; however, there was a “significant increase” in the prevalence of C. diff. It is typically transmitted by hand and surfaces touched, so hand-washing and sterilization would also be an effective way to reduce these infections.
Recent Missouri Hospital Problems
In 2017 and 2018 at the General Leonard Wood Army Community Hospital in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, there was an outbreak of infection. The cause was surgical equipment that was improperly sterilized. Since the outbreak, the Joint Commission has worked with the hospital to update policies and procedures for sterilization and decontamination.
Meanwhile, Barnes-Jewish St. Peters Hospital and Christian Hospital Northeast-Northwest in the greater St. Louis area have recently been penalized for problems with hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). It’s only fair to point out that hospitals that serve patients with weakened immune systems will continue to be challenged by HAIs.
Missouri Hospital Infection Control Act
In 2004, the state passed the Missouri Hospital Infection Control Act to enhance patient safety. It requires hospitals and surgery centers to report data regarding HAIs. Hospitals must also establish a multidisciplinary committee that will institute and develop a program geared toward the prevention, detection, and investigation of infections. The policies and procedures should be completed in writing. In addition, the state requires that laboratories adhere to an HAI reporting program.
The Hospital’s Legal Liability for Infections
With increasing government efforts to minimize costs and reform American healthcare, HAIs are gaining attention. Hospitals are employing more people with titles like risk management administrator, patient safety officer, and hospital compliance manager nowadays, because in addition to penalties imposed by the CMS and private insurers, there is a large potential for civil liability after an HAI.
When is a hospital liable for a patient contracting an HAI? To establish liability based on negligence, the following must be proven:
- The patient acquired an infection during a stay at the hospital.
- The hospital failed at a procedural or policy level to prevent, detect, treat, report, or control the infection.
- This negligence caused or worsened the infection.
- Due to the infection, the patient suffered an injury.
At Norton & Norton, P.C., our Kansas City medical malpractice attorneys have handled many cases of hospital-acquired infection, getting just compensation for patients and their families. For a free consultation to discuss your situation, please call us at (816) 454-5800 today.