Most people have heard horror stories about hospital patients who are admitted for a minor procedure and die after exposure to an infectious disease. Unfortunately, those stories are more common than many believe. Hospital-acquired infections, also known as nosocomial infections, have become a leading cause of preventable death. A hospital that fails to protect patients may be required to pay compensation when a patient dies or suffers a serious illness after acquiring an infection during hospitalization.

An epidemic of preventable infections

The Center for Disease Control and Infections (CDC) reports that 5 to 10 percent of all patients who are admitted to a hospital acquire an infection during their stay. That amounts to 1.7 million patients each year who suffer from a hospital-acquired infection (HAI). While most of the infections respond to routine treatment, 99,000 patients die from HAIs every year. Many more are subject to a prolonged hospital stay that may result in lost income, pain and suffering, and long-term disability.

A recent study concluded that spinal cord injury patients experience an “alarming rate” of death after hospital admission. The study concluded that hospital-acquired infections are a key cause of those deaths. A similar study of patients with acute pancreatitis found that HAIs had a “major impact” on mortality rates and on the length of patients’ hospital stays.

A small but significant percentage of HAIs involve outbreaks that affect multiple patients at the same time. A Virginia study found that preventable outbreaks of HAIs usually occur in intensive care or critical care units where patients are particularly vulnerable.

Most HAIs are preventable. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Evidence Based Practice found that, depending on the kind of infection that a patient acquires, 55% to 70% of HAIs could be avoided by taking proper precautions.

Causes of HAIs

Hospital workers who fail to scrub their hands when moving from patient to patient are the leading cause of HAIs. In addition to direct contact with the patient, airborne HAIs may be transmitted from patient to patient due to coughing and sneezing.

Some infections are transmitted when doctors use improperly sterilized equipment, such as catheters and scalpels. Some HAIs are caused by infected blood supplies that are not properly screened. Others are caused by malfunctioning ventilation systems that send airborne microorganisms from room to room within the hospital.

Prevention of HAIs

The most readily preventable HAIs are catheter related. Proper sterilization of catheters should prevent nearly all urinary tract and vascular infections that are associated with catheters. Many cases of ventilator-associated pneumonia, a serious HAI that develops while using a breathing machine, could be prevented if hospitals followed recommended infection control practices.

Depending on the nature of the surgery, as many as 20% of all surgical procedures result in a surgical site infection. About 40 to 60 percent of infections that occur during surgery are preventable. Surgical site infections can be avoided by proper sterilization of surgical equipment, by requiring all personnel in the operating room to follow hygienic procedures, and by assuring that ventilation systems are functioning properly. While a 2005 study demonstrated that implementation of procedures for avoiding infections reduced the rate of surgical site infections by 27%, the study concluded that those procedures are underutilized.

Enforcing rules that require all hospital personnel to wash their hands before touching a patient would prevent many HAIs. Infections spread by malfunctioning heating and ventilation systems can be prevented by repairing the problem, but some hospitals put profits ahead of safety by continuing to use infection-prone facilities before repairs are made.

Cost of HAIs

The societal cost of preventable HAIs to the health care system is astronomical. Each year, hospital-acquired infections add $4.5 billion to the cost of health care in the United States.

The cost to an individual who suffers from an HAI cannot be so easily measured. The Pennsylvania study found that preventable HAIs add more than two weeks to average hospital stays. Patients who acquire an HAI are billed an average of $150,000 to treat the infection. Treatment is not always successful. About 12% of infected patients die, compared to the average death rate of 2.3% for hospitalized patients who do not become infected. Hospital-acquired infections have become a leading cause of death for hospitalized patients.

Unfortunately, hospital administrators have not always been motivated to solve the problem. Hospitals make more money by treating HAIs. Administrators often argue that HAI prevention will cost more money than it will save. The federal government tried to change that attitude by refusing to reimburse hospitals for Medicare and Medicaid charges related to certain kinds of HAIs. The Department of Health and Human Services claims that the program has achieved some success, but preventable HAIs remain a serious risk for hospital patients.

Compensation for patients

Not every HAI is preventable and not every preventable HAI can be traced to a specific source. In some cases, however, it is possible to establish that an HAI was more likely than not caused by the hospital’s failure to implement appropriate procedures to prevent patients from being exposed to infections.

Hospital-acquired infections were once viewed as an unavoidable risk. That thinking has changed in light of a growing body of evidence that training staff to use proper procedures, and enforcing those procedures, will prevent most HAIs. Even the venerable Wall Street Journal predicts that HAIs will result in a new wave of lawsuits that will be “bigger than the litigation over asbestos.”

If you suffered a severe debilitating disease or if your loved one died after contracting an infection during a hospital stay, do not assume that you have no remedy. Consult with a personal injury lawyer to determine whether further investigation is warranted. In appropriate cases, the injured patient or surviving family members may be entitled to receive substantial compensation. Using a personal injury lawyer to send a message to careless hospitals may be the only way to save other patients who are at risk of acquiring a preventable infection.