Hospitals are places that are supposed to be for healing and getting better, but too many people come away from hospital stays with serious infections. Some never leave because of deadly infections contracted while staying in a hospital. From mild, surgical site infections, to severe and fatal sepsis, various types of infections can strike hospital patients, with serious consequences.
Hospital-acquired infections are a major health problem, and hospitals and their staff have a responsibility to take all reasonable steps to prevent patients from contracting them. When they fail, it may be a case of negligence. If you suffered from a hospital infection, or lost a loved one to one of these devastating infections, contact a medical malpractice lawyer to help you determine if you have a case.
What Are Hospital-Acquired Infections?
A hospital-acquired infection is any infection—bacterial, viral, or fungal—that a patient did not have before arriving in the hospital and picks up during a stay. The most common types of infection are blood stream infections, gastrointestinal infections, pneumonia, especially ventilator-assisted pneumonia, urinary tract infections, and surgical site infections, an infection in the incision after a surgical procedure. These infections are major health issues, but they are preventable.
Infections acquired in the hospital are unfortunately common, and while hospitals are being penalized for them, there is still a lot of room for improvement. In 2017 the federal government penalized over 750 hospitals across the U.S. by reducing Medicare funding. The penalty resulted from these hospitals having too many infections in patients. In 2011 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were 722,000 hospital-acquired affections in the U.S. Approximately 75,000 people die from hospital infections every year.
A particularly harmful type of infection that can be acquired in a hospital setting is known as MRSA, or methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus. It is caused by a type of bacteria that resists most antibiotics, so it is especially dangerous. While it is not one of the most common hospital infections, MRSA most often occurs in the hospital and other healthcare settings.
In recent years the number of cases of MRSA in hospitals has gone down, but this is after they spiked between 1999 and 2005. During that period the number of hospitalizations caused by MRSA increased 62 percent and went up from 294,000 cases to nearly 488,000. The number of MRSA cases contracted in hospitals decreased 50 percent from 2005 to 2011, but this infection is still a very serious health problem.
What Causes Hospital Infections?
The real tragedy of hospital-acquired infections is that they are mostly preventable. Keeping patients, equipment, instruments, bedding, staff members’ hands, and other things clean and sanitary should prevent infections. However, it can be difficult to keep up with the work involved in maintaining such cleanliness and many hospitals fail, resulting in at least some patients acquiring preventable infections.
In addition to MRSA, some of the bacteria that most commonly cause hospital infections are other types of Staphylococcus aureus, Escherichia coli (E. coli), Enterococci, and Pseudomonas aeruginosa. Fungal and viral infections are less common. While lack of cleanliness is the ultimate cause of infections in the hospital, there are some risk factors that increase the likelihood a patient will contract an infection:
- Having been exposed to antibiotics for a long period of time
- Having been through shock
- Having been in a coma
- Having a compromised immune system
- Having a catheter
- Staying for a longer period of time in the hospital, especially in the intensive care unit
- Being older than 70
- Receiving a transplanted organ
Consequences of Hospital-Acquired Infections
The consequences of acquiring an infection in the hospital can be very serious, which is why some people turn to malpractice cases to get compensation. The complications of an infection depend on the type of infection and the health of the patient. Infections may be mild and easily treatable, but they may also be severe and deadly. Some potential consequences of suffering a hospital-acquired infection include:
- Acute and chronic pain.
- Longer hospital stay.
- A need for antibiotics.
- Additional infections.
- Ongoing illness.
- Additional surgery.
- Disability, as when a part of the body needs to be amputated to control severe infection.
- Excessive medical bills.
- Inability to work and lost wages.
- Emotional suffering.
Hospital Infections and Malpractice
Because infections are preventable with good hygiene and sanitary measures, it may seem as if hospital-acquired infections should be easy to prove as malpractice. Unfortunately it is not that easy. As with other malpractice cases, four things must be established: that there existed a duty to provide medical care, that the care was breached or the standard of care was not met, that the breach caused harm, and that the harm caused damages.
The tricky part with infections is proving that standard of care was not met. It must be proven that the infection was acquired in the hospital and that some level of care was missed that led to the infection. Finding documentary evidence that someone in the hospital failed to clean or sanitize equipment, for instance, is difficult. If a nurse or nursing assistant fails to properly maintain and clean a patient’s wound, a breach may be easier to prove. Not providing a sanitary environment is much more complicated to prove.
Examples of Infection Lawsuits
There are very few cases of successful malpractice cases against hospitals for infections because they are hard to prove. There are some standout cases, though, such as one in which a mold outbreak led to the deaths of patients. A mold outbreak at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center led to a handful of deaths caused by infections in transplant patients. Families of those patients filed wrongful death suits because the hospital should have had mold under control in the hospital.
Because it is so difficult to prove that a hospital or staff members directly breached a duty to care in causing a patient to develop an infection in a hospital, malpractice cases are rare. The lack of concrete evidence in terms of keeping hospitals sanitary and also proving exactly how a patient contracted an infection makes it extremely difficult for victims of these infections to file and win lawsuits and settlements. If you or a love one suffered from an infection acquired in a hospital, talk to a malpractice lawyer to find out if you have a case that might be provable or end in a settlement.