Hospital-Acquired Infections: The Unseen Health Risks of Hospital Stays



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When you seek treatment at a hospital, you expect to get better. Unfortunately, many people become sicker in the hospital after acquiring hospital-related infections.

When you seek treatment at a hospital, you expect to get better. Unfortunately, many people become sicker in the hospital after acquiring hospital-related infections. Hospital-acquired infections are a common problem in Pennsylvania and across the United States. According to the Pennsylvania Health Care Cost Containment Council (PHC4), 27,949 Pennsylvania patients contracted an infection while hospitalized in 2007. Hospital-acquired infections can result in medical complications, additional recovery time, pain and suffering, increased medical bills, serious injuries and even death.

What Are Hospital-Acquired Infections?
Generally speaking, a hospital-acquired infection, which is also known as a nosocomial infection or health care associated infection (HAI), appears between two and four days after admission to a hospital. In some cases, the infection may only become apparent after the patient is discharged from the hospital. The infection is not related to the condition for which the person was originally admitted to the hospital.

The most common types of infections acquired during stays at hospitals or other health care facilities include urinary tract infections, pneumonia, bloodstream infections and surgical-site infections. Urinary tract infections are often the result of the use of a urinary catheter. The use of a mechanical ventilator is the main risk factor for developing hospital-acquired pneumonia. Bloodstream infections can occur when germs move down a central line or central catheter (which is used to draw blood or deliver medicine or fluids) and enter the blood. Surgical-site infections may be related to either the incision or the internal organs or body areas that were touched by the actual surgery.

Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and other staph infections are also common. MRSA is dangerous because it is resistant to most broad-spectrum antibiotics. MRSA and other staph infections typically look like small bug bites or pimples at first, which can then become large abscesses. The bacteria can either stay in the skin or infect other parts of the body such as the bloodstream, bones, heart valves and lungs, which can be potentially fatal.

How Can Hospital-Acquired Infections Be Prevented?
Hospitals and health care providers can do several things to prevent infection, many of which relate to practicing good hygiene and following guidelines related to keeping equipment and rooms clean and sterilized. These are relatively easy and inexpensive steps. Doctors, nurses and other hospital personnel should wash their hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based cleanser and wear gloves when interacting with patients, including when examining wounds, stitches or incision sites. You can even ask your doctor to wash his or her hands before examining you. Doctors and other personnel should wear clean scrubs, cover their hair and use a face mask that covers the nose and mouth. In addition, all medical devices or equipment, including surgical instruments and catheters, should be sterilized before being used on a patient.

To prevent surgical-site infection, the incision area should be thoroughly washed and prepped with an antiseptic. During surgery, limit the number of personnel who may enter the operating room to those who are only medically necessary. In addition, before taking blood or inserting an IV or catheter, the patient's skin should be cleaned with an antiseptic cleanser. Catheters should be used properly and monitored by both the patient and health care providers. If they are no longer necessary, they should be removed.

What Should You Do After Contracting a Hospital-Acquired Infection?
If you develop new or different symptoms while you are still in the hospital, tell your health care provider about them. If you have developed an infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat your infection. If you were discharged from the hospital, but later developed a fever or pain, or if your incision looks red, contact your doctor. A fever or redness can be a sign of infection.

The number of hospital-acquired infections in Pennsylvania dropped almost 8% from 2006 to 2007. Despite this drop, too many Pennsylvania patients are still contracting infections in the hospital. Many of these infections could be prevented if simple steps were taken by hospital personnel. If you sustained serious injuries because of a hospital-acquired infection, you may have a case for medical malpractice. Depending on the circumstances, the hospital may have failed to take the appropriate steps to prevent your infection.

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Disclaimer: While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this publication, it is not intended to provide legal advice as individual situations will differ and should be discussed with an expert and/or lawyer. For specific technical or legal advice on the information provided and related topics, please contact the author.