According to the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC), patients in American hospitals come down with over 2 million hospital-acquired infections each year, 90,000 of which result in death. Nor are nursing home patients immune: the CDC estimates that this population suffers another 1.5 million preventable infections each year, for a total of 3.5 million facility-acquired infections annually. While these numbers are grim enough on their own, they become even more so when you realize that, by comparison, the incidence of new AIDS infections ranges from 38,000 to 56,000 per year, while AIDS deaths number about 6,ooo per year. Given the lack of news coverage regarding the number of deaths caused by infections, it could be called a silent epidemic. The number of such infections has been on the rise in recent years, although experts disagree about the reasons. Some point to the rise in the number of infectious agents that are resistant to some or all of the antibiotics used to treat infections. Others point to the increasing prevalence of HMO’s, which can result in patients’ not being treated by a specialist trained to recognized an infection until after it has become established, when it is more difficult to treat. Others claim that the infection rate is the same as it has always been, and it is just that reporting has gotten better. Many authorities reject hospitals’ traditional response to complaints about infections acquired in their facilities-that a certain number of infections is inevitable-and have concluded that most of these infections result from failure of the hospital or its staff to strictly follow the rules intended to prevent the infections.
The response to this information has led to a legal revolution that will hopefully bring about a health-care revolution. More than half of the states have passed laws requiring hospital-acquired infections to be reported to state health authorities, so people have a better idea of the scope of the problem. The CDC itself has given the issue much more attention than it ever did in the past, and has recently issued guidelines that hospitals and nursing homes should follow to prevent infections in their patients. So has the Joint Commission, a body that gives hospitals their accreditation and whose regulations are considered by many to be a good statement of the standards that hospitals should follow. These changes are not just regulatory, but also legal. Lawyers who counsel hospitals and nursing homes have taken these standards seriously. Accordingly, they have advised their clients to enact protocols to ensure that these standards are met. It can be something as simple as requiring the staff to wash or otherwise disinfect their hands when moving from one patient to another. Lawyers also recommend hospitals to regularly screen patients for the presence of drug-resistant organisms and to regularly use instruments that have been pre-treated with antibiotics to prevent infections before they occur. In recent years and based on these recommendations, many facilities have overhauled their policies and procedures that are intended to prevent infections, even imposing penalties on its staff who are caught failing to obey the new, stricter rules.
However, because not all hospitals and nursing homes have gotten the message since some of them allow profits to come before patient care. Consequently, another legal avenue is being pursued: litigation. With the problem of hospital-acquired infections now well known, and with the enactment of many new regulations designed to address the issue, hospitals are finding it harder to avoid liability when a patient does in fact become infected. In some rare cases, juries are awarding tens of millions of dollars to patients who contracted serious bacterial infections while they were patients at hospitals or nursing homes. Often from infections that involve drug-resistant, flesh-eating bacteria and lead to death or to the loss of limbs and organs. Most experts agree that the publicity given to the problem has also made jurors more aware of the problem, and so less tolerant of a hospital’s lack of a similar awareness and concern for patients well being. Despite increased awareness, lawsuits regarding facility-acquired infections can be difficult to win. Although the fact of the infection is known, the cause is often difficult to pinpoint. In some cases, the medical records allow experts to determine the likely source or cause of the infection, but in others, it is not possible to know exactly where the infection came from and therefore, who is at fault. This uncertainty means hospital infection cases must be handled very carefully by experienced lawyers to ensure that the injured patient or his or her surviving family have their day in court. If you feel that you, a friend or someone you love may have been a victim of a preventable infection, contact us. We can help you determine the best course of action under the circumstances.