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Did you get sicker in the hospital than you were when you went in for treatment?
Nearly everyone has an occasion to be in a hospital at some point in their lifetime. It could be routine like having a baby or a “minor” surgical procedure like an appendectomy. Or, it could be something more serious like a health condition or major surgery.
Regardless of why you’re there, no hospital stay is completely without risk. Even the most routine procedure likely carries a degree of risk.
A hospital- or healthcare-acquired infection (HAI) is an infection you can get while receiving treatment at a healthcare facility or from a healthcare provider. This includes hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes or other facilities.
In other words, it’s an infection a patient could acquire in a medical facility that is unrelated to the condition for which they’re seeking treatment.
These infections enter your bloodstream, lungs, skin, urinary tract or digestive tract. They can worsen an existing illness or create new problems and complications for a patient.
For reporting purposes to the National Healthcare Safety Network, an infection is considered hospital-onset if the patient begins to show symptoms of infection on or after the third day of admission.
If it’s a Laboratory-identified (LabID) infection, it’s when a patient sample is confirmed by laboratory testing on or after the fourth day of hospital admission.
Types of healthcare-acquired infections
Infections can be acquired through catheters, surgery, injections, communicable diseases and overuse of antibiotics.
Catheter-associated urinary tract infection (CAUTI)
A urinary tract infection (UTI) affects the urethra, bladder, ureters, or kidneys. Germs could travel through a catheter to these organs if the catheter is inserted incorrectly, isn’t kept clean, or remains in the patient for too long.
Central line-associated bloodstream infection (CLABSI)
A tube placed in a large vein could be inserted incorrectly, or it could be unclean. This allows germs to enter the body and could cause a deadly blood infection.
Clostridioides difficile (C. difficile)
Clostridium difficile infections are also knonw as C-diff or CDI. Antibiotics are very helpful and can save lives. BUT, sometimes they destroy the “good bacteria” that our bodies need. C. difficile bacteria can cause life-threatening diarrhea. People who are older and take antibiotics long-term are at highest risk.
Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)
This staph bacteria could cause a bloodstream infection. It enters the body through a catheter or a medical tube inserted into a patient’s vein.
Surgical site infection (SSI)
An infection at a surgical site can remain near the surgical wound as a skin infection, or it could get into the deeper tissues and organs.
Ventilator-associated pneumonia (VAP)
A ventilator is a machine that helps a patient breathe through a tube in their mouth, nose or throat. Germs can pass through these tubes and cause illness.
Can a patient sue for a healthcare-acquired infection?
The patient can sue if they are a victim of medical malpractice.
Who is liable for a healthcare-acquired infection?
For the purposes of medical malpractice, a “medical professional” includes:
- Anyone licensed or registered to perform medicine, surgery, dentistry, pharmacy, optometry, midwifery, osteopathy, podiatry, chiropractic services, radiology, nursing, physiotherapy, pathology, anesthesiology, anesthesia, or laboratory analysis.
- Any person who provides assistance to a physician, dental hygienist, psychiatrist, or psychologist.
- A hospital or nursing home.
A medical professional’s standard of care is the reasonable approach, practice, or procedure for a particular medical situation. Reasonableness is determined by what’s common and accepted in the local medical community. That means the standard of care might be different depending on where the treatment was provided. A physician or other medical professional has breached the standard of care if they failed to provide treatment consistent with the local standard.
In addition to breaching the standard of care, an injured plaintiff can make a claim that:
- The provider didn’t use their best judgment in determining treatment or care.
- The provider failed to use reasonable care and diligence to apply their knowledge and skill to the patient’s treatment.
A hospital could be liable for an infection if it did not meet the standards of the medical community. This could include the hospital’s being understaffed.
Types of risk factors for an HAI
1. Organizational risk factors
There are certain organizational risk factors that might increase a patient’s likelihood of developing a hospital-acquired infection.
Risk factors for a hospital-acquired infection include issues related to the facility, itself:
- Cleanliness of treatment area and facility, generally
- Water cleanliness
- Sanitation of surfaces
- Medical device and procedure sterilization protocols
- Cleanliness of the facility’s HVAC (heating, ventilation, air conditioning) system
- Number of patients being treated at the time
- Proximity (closeness) of patients to each other
2. Iatrogenic risk factors
Risk factors can also be attributed to methods and practices of the providers. These include:
- Frequency and thoroughness of health care providers’ hand washing
- Use of antibiotics
- Level of care during invasive procedures like intubation, IV insertion, and catheterization
- Degree of caution used by staffers during their regular job duties
If you’ve been injured from a hospital-acquired infection, your lawyer will conduct an investigation of the facility and its staff. Certain practices would be considered negligent.
These negligent practices include:
- The facility being understaffed for the number and care required for patients
- Unqualified or undertrained providers and staff
- Failure to follow proper cleaning, sanitizing and sterilization procedures
- Poorly maintained or repaired medical equipment
- Failure to separate or quarantine infectious patients from others as necessary
3. Patient risk factors
No human body is perfect. If you’re seeking medical treatment, there’s already some issue that might make you more prone to an infection. However, certain factors could increase the likelihood of a patient’s developing an HAI.
- Duration of stay in the facility
- Severity of illness
- Patient’s immune system
- Potential exposure to hospital staff, other patients, or other individuals in the hospital setting
What can you do as a patient to avoid infection?
You might feel as though you’re at the mercy of your providers as soon as you set foot in a medical care setting. And, while you might not always understand or be able to control what’s happening, there are a few steps you can take in order to reduce your risks.
- Wash your hands thoroughly and often in a medical setting or use hand sanitizer
- Be sure your medical providers wash their hands before they touch you or any equipment
- Ask the staff if hand sanitizer (if that’s what they are using) is sufficient because hand sanitizer does not protect against some types of infections
- Only take antibiotics exactly as directed by your doctor
- Always finish the prescription for an antibiotic; never stop short because your symptoms are better
What can you do if you’ve suffered an HAI?
You should contact a personal injury or medical malpractice lawyer as soon as possible. They will conduct an investigation into the facility’s policies, practices and procedures. This would provide two pieces of critical information: First, whether the facility had procedures in place that follow the industry standard of care, and second, whether the facility was following its own procedures.
Your lawyer will likely seek out other medical professionals who can testify about whether the facility could be liable for your injury or illness.
If your attorney determines that the infection could have been prevented if the facility had followed appropriate protocols, they might advise you to file a medical malpractice claim. These cases can be complex, and a skilled and experienced attorney is the best person to guide you through the process for the optimal outcome.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.