“Superbugs” Highlight Need For Infection Control
The problem of hospital infections will only get worse. Humans have become extraordinarily adept at killing bacteria and viruses. We have excellent anti-viral and antibiotic drugs to take care of these infections. But viruses and bacteria also get better. Infectious pathogens evolve at an extraordinarily-fast rate. They improve their defense mechanisms, eventually becoming immune to our current line of medications. So we have to ramp up our own efforts, creating better antibiotics and anti-viral drugs to combat pathogens that are quickly becoming “superbugs.”
A specific form of superbug, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, has been called a true epidemic by medical luminaries like the World Health Organization. It’s highly likely that the brunt of this growing epidemic will fall with the most force on hospital patients. Medical facilities, after all, are where large groups of sick people gather together. As a result, hospitals and out-patient medical clinics take infection control and prevention very seriously.
- Isolate patients with communicable diseases from the general population
- Wash hands before and after touching a patient, a patient’s body fluids and a patient’s surroundings
- Wear gloves and a gown and change them before touching another patient
- Thoroughly sterilize reusable medical equipment
- Ventilate rooms to reduce transmission of airborne pathogens
- Clean and disinfect all areas in which patient care takes place
That’s only the beginning of infection control. Hospitals around the country follow strict guidelines (often drafted and enforced themselves) in order to prevent breakouts and address specific pathogens.
Modes Of Transmission & Infectious Agents
On any given day, around 4% of hospital patients contract at least one healthcare-acquired infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s 1 in 25 patients. While this number has dropped over recent years, the situation is still dire. In 2011, approximately 722,000 patients in acute-care hospitals developed infections. Around 75,000 of those patients died. Hospitals, though, aren’t the only problem. In fact, around 75% of all healthcare-related infections are contracted in nursing homes or doctors’ offices.
Public health researchers agree that most patients are at risk of contracting four major types of infection:
- Bloodstream infections – associated with central line catheter placement (insertion of a catheter into any one of the body’s large veins)
- Pneumonia – associated with the placement of ventilation devices (technically known as “ventilator-associated pneumonia or VAP)
- Urinary tract infections – associated with urinary catheter placement
- Surgical site infections – associated with wounds from invasive operations
Less common, but no less serious, are gastrointestinal infections and meningitis, an infection in the brain and spinal cord. Any form of infection can lead to sepsis.
As we can see, none of these broad categories tell us anything about what type of pathogen is spreading. Instead, we’ve only touched on the mode of transmission: how the infectious agent gets from one patient to another. To get a more basic understanding of this point, simply consider that pneumonia, a form of lung infection, can be caused by viruses, bacteria or fungi – all radically different organisms.
More specifically, pneumonia usually develops due to the infiltration of influenza (flu) viruses. But the condition can also be caused by streptococcus pneumoniae, a bacteria. Urinary tract infections, on the other hand, are predominantly bacterial in nature. The overwhelming cause of urinary tract infections is Escherichia coli (E. coli), a bacteria that lives in the digestive tracts of all humans and most other warm-blooded animals. Other infection bacteria, like the sexually-transmitted disease chlamydia, can infect the urinary tract, too.
Negligence & Hospital-Acquired Infections
The diagnoses of “pneumonia” or “urinary tract infection” refer not to the true causes of a medical condition, but to their manifestations. These words indicate how infections of a certain type affect our bodies. This distinction, between the mode of an infection’s transmission and the infectious agent, is important, especially in the realm of medical malpractice lawsuits. Why? Because an attorney has to prove one of two things:
- the infection could have been prevented (by following an appropriate standard of care; i.e. the patient need not have contracted the infection in the first place)
- the infection went undiagnosed, was misdiagnosed and / or was mistreated
Turns out, proving the first point is difficult. It’s hard, because we don’t have to prove that a patient contracted pneumonia due to a medical professional’s negligent conduct. We have to prove that a patient contracted that specific type of pneumonia, a particular pathogen, due to a medical professional’s negligent conduct. In practice, that’s a tough argument to make, since all of us are surrounded by bacteria every minute of our lives.
The Case Of Kimberly F.
There are, of course, exceptions. Take the case Kimberly F. v. Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital, which reached the US Court Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in 1993. Kimberly F. (a pseudonym) gave birth to a healthy child in 1986. She left the hospital with her baby two days later, but returned a week after that, suffering from an outbreak of genital herpes. How did Kimberly F. get herpes, which happens to be a sexually-transmitted disease? Her husband didn’t have herpes. She didn’t have sex with someone else.
So who had herpes – and who gave it to Kimberly F.? The patient next to her. As it happens, a nurse had treated that patient, failed to disinfect herself and then passed the infection along when she went to help Kimberly F. Faced by these facts, the jury had little choice but to conclude that medical malpractice had occurred:
- the nurse (along with Mary Hitchcock Memorial Hospital) had a duty to care for Kimberly F.
- the nurse should have followed a basic standard of care, disinfecting herself before treating another patient
- the nurse failed to follow that standard of care, constituting medical negligence
- the nurse’s negligence caused Kimberly F. to contract herpes
- herpes, being a chronic, incurable disease, has caused (and will continue to cause) Kimberly F. to suffer a range of hardships
In this basic real-world example, we’ve already seen every aspect of a viable medical malpractice claim.
How A Malpractice Lawsuit Works
Medical professionals have a duty to care appropriately for their patients, both during diagnosis and treatment. Specifically, all medical practitioners have a legal obligation to uphold the standards of their profession.
1. Standard Of Care
Standards matter. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. But thoughtfully-crafted standards allow us to overcome our error-prone nature. Standards can change, of course, depending on a medical professional’s education and specialty, as well as a patient’s medical condition, medical history and personal characteristics. There is, however, always a standard.
2. Medical Negligence
Doctors, nurses, radiologists and other medical technology professionals, even hospital systems, are all bound to follow medical standards. When they fail to do so, attorneys call their misconduct “medical negligence.”
3. Causal Link
To make for an appropriate lawsuit, though, medical negligence needs to lead directly to patient harm. In cases like the one filed by Kimberly F., this harm is clear. She now has herpes and will have herpes for life. She’ll now have to take medications for her condition. She’s suffered physical pain and emotional trauma.
These are her damages, forms of harm that can be compensated financially. In other cases, the causal link between negligence and damages is harder to demonstrate. How, for example, would you determine whether or not a doctor’s error reduced a terminal cancer patient’s life expectancy?
Most cases aren’t as clear-cut as the lawsuit filed by Kimberly F. Again, Kimberly F.’s case set out to prove that her herpes infection could have been prevented – if only the nurse had followed appropriate medical standards. In practice, most viable malpractice lawsuits that involve hospital-acquired (or “nosocomial”) infections or sepsis rely on a different legal theory: that a doctor or other medical professional failed to diagnose or treat an infection in the appropriate way. The basic principles of medical malpractice, however, still hold up. It’s all about standards of care, violations of those standards, causally-linked harms and compensable damages.
Pennsylvania Statute Of Limitations
In Pennsylvania, medical malpractice lawsuits are governed by a “statute of limitations,” a law that limits the amount of time patients are given to file suit. The State’s malpractice law allows patients two years to file their lawsuit, beginning when the plaintiff discovers (or should have discovered) their injury and its potential connection to negligence. Another law, known as the “statute of repose,” acts as a hard deadline. No malpractice lawsuit can be filed in Pennsylvania more than seven years after the act of medical negligent took place.
In some cases, injured patients are also able to pursue compensation against private businesses. Many invasive medical devices, for example, can spread virulent infections. Some patients will be eligible to file a product liability lawsuit against the manufacturers of these medical devices. Pennsylvania’s time limit for product liability lawsuits is also two years.
To learn more about your legal options, contact our experienced medical malpractice attorneys today. We offer free consultations to all interested parties, with no obligation. Moreover, our lawyers always work on a contingency-fee basis, which means you pay nothing unless we secure compensation in your case. Just call our attorneys today to learn more.