Infection Dangers to Consider Before Heading to the Hospital
“The older you are, the worse the hospital is for you.”
That CNN headline grabbed attention when it was originally published in August 2016, and it is just as true now as it was then. The article, written by a correspondent for Kaiser Health News, detailed how elderly patients check into hospitals to be treated and leave in much worse condition. “About one-third of patients over 70 years old and more than half of patients over 85 leave the hospital more disabled than when they arrived, research shows.”
The danger of hospitals is real, but it is not limited to the elderly. One serious risk to all healthcare patients is infection.
Infections are rife in hospitals and other healthcare facilities. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are a major, yet often preventable, threat to patient safety….On any given day, about 1 in 25 hospital patients has at least one healthcare-associated infection.” This is especially upsetting because research has found that taking steps to prevent certain infections would decrease their rate by nearly 70%, meaning thousands of lives and billions of dollars saved per year. Most infections are caused by unsanitary conditions, which should NOT exist in a medical care facility full of at-risk patients.
Hospital-acquired infections gained prominence in 2011, when the New England Journal of Medicine published a study that looked at infections in 183 acute care hospitals across ten states. The study authors found that 4% of patients surveyed had one or more HAIs, and estimated that there were 648,000 patients with 721,800 healthcare-associated infections throughout the United States in 2011. Around 75,000 ended up dying from these infections.
CBS News cites the tragic case of Josh Nahum as an example of everything that’s wrong with this epidemic. In 2006, Nahum broke his femur and skull in a skydiving accident, and was rushed to a Colorado hospital. There, he developed a bacterial infection after surgeons bored a hole in his skull to relieve pressure on his brain. He died days later. “The infection killed him,” said Josh’s stepmother Victoria Nahum, who later founded the nonprofit Safe Care Campaign to raise awareness about HAIs. “But on the death certificate they put ‘skydiving accident.'”
There’s another reason we should all be concerned about hospital infections. As infections spread, the bacteria grow and evolve, developing a resistance to antibiotics. These strains are called “superbugs,” and they are a danger worldwide. The CDC estimates that more than two million people suffer antibiotic-resistant infections every year in the United States. And at least 23,000 will die.
Though some superbugs can still be treated with harsher drugs, CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden noted, “Research has shown that patients with resistant infections are often much more likely to die, and survivors have significantly longer hospital stays, delayed recuperation, and long-term disability.”
The most urgent superbug threats include Clostridium difficile, which causes colitis, an inflammation of the colon; Enterobacteriaceae like salmonella and E.coli, which cause a range of infections, from meningitis to pneumonia; and certain strains of gonorrhea. Many bacterial, fungal, and parasitic infections are added to the list every year.
In the 2011 New England Journal of Medicine study, Clostridium difficile was by far the most commonly reported pathogen, causing 12.1% of all the infections. Undoubtedly, this has something to do with the new, resistant strains we are seeing today.
What Hospitals Should Do
Why don’t hospitals tackle this problem squarely? According to Dr. Marty Makary, an oncology surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital, it’s because they aren’t held accountable in the public eye.
“After the rumor of infection rates going public was confirmed for a few select types of surgery, I couldn’t help but notice administrators suddenly doing much more walking on the units, asking nurses and doctors what it would take to get everyone to wash their hands and reduce the infection rate….
“The internal crackdown I witnessed worked. Infection rates were cut in half at my hospital and at many others. But infections are just one of dozens of commonly preventable bad patient outcomes, all of which should be made public knowledge. With universal transparency, hospital leadership would also develop a fast-moving protocol by which to conduct crackdowns whenever new problems come to light.” (Makary, Marty, MD. Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won’t Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2012. Print.)
Though the federal government never did make hospital infection rates public—which they should—the above example shows that a little prevention could dramatically change the landscape of American healthcare and keep more superbugs from evolving.
What Patients Can Do
Patients can also play a role in identifying and preventing the spread of HAIs. As a patient, you should take the following steps:
Watch for signs of infection. Some symptoms include fever, sore throat, burning pain with urination, nasal congestion, unusual discharge, redness, soreness, or swelling, diarrhea, vomiting, or pain in the abdomen.
Communicate with your medical team. Be clear about what is bothering you, and if you would like to have something done differently. “My doctor didn’t look at my rash, and it’s grown. I would like another doctor to look at it to see if it’s an infection.” Be polite and recognize that these are busy medical professionals, but don’t back down—your health is at stake.
Insist your care providers wash their hands, or wear new gloves every time they touch you or a family member. If you see any unsanitary spot in the room—even the light fixtures—say something. Hospitals should be largely sterile environments to prevent the spread of diseases between so many sick patients.
If you do not receive better treatment, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services offers this resource page with information about which branch of government you should contact to file a complaint against your hospital or healthcare provider. If a hospital-acquired infection caused you serious injuries, however, you may want to speak to a lawyer first.
At Leventhal & Puga, P.C., our trial attorneys have extensive experience with medical malpractice. We know how much harm hospitals can do when they don’t take patient safety seriously, and we take issue with negligent practices. For us, patients always come first. For a free consultation with one of our Denver medical malpractice attorneys, please dial (877) 433-3906 or contact us online.