Danger Zone: Hospitals

Several patients at Cape Cod Hospital may have been exposed to a potentially fatal infection during spinal surgery, according to The Boston Globe.  The five patients in question underwent surgery this summer using a rented instrument that had previously been used on a patient with Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a brain infection that cannot be treated and that usually causes death within months.  According to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the patients’ risk of actually contracting the disease is low, because the surgery did not involve their brains.

The disclosure follows on the heels of report that other patients may have been exposed to the same instrument at Catholic Medical Center in Manchester, New Hampshire.  Ordinary hospital sterilization procedures do not eradicate the deadly infection.  The New Hampshire Department of Public health notified eight patients that they may have been exposed to the disease as a result of the device, rented from Medtronic corporation.

This report is eerily similar to another series of exposures at Boston Medical Center, in which dialysis patients were exposed to hepatitis B because the dialysis equipment was not properly sterilized between patients.  And last month, a medical technician named David Kwiatkowski recently pled guilty after infecting dozens of patients in at least three states by stealing and then replacing syringes to support his drug addiction.

These stories are a stark reminder of the many dangers that face hospitalized patients.  Hospitals are well-known sources of a wide variety of infections, from the common and easily treatable to potentially life-threatening or life-changing.   The CDC estimates that 1.7 million people contract infections in hospitals each year, and nearly 100,000 of those patients die of the infection.  Some infections are difficult to prevent, but others involve clearly identifiable fault of hospital personnel in such areas as sterilization procedures, risk recognition, and communication.  But there’s no question that hospitals are dangerous places.

Patients who are seriously injured or killed by hospital-acquired infections may have malpractice claims against the medical providers, the facility, and/or the equipment providers.  Hospital staff needs to be vigilant for sources of infection, and mindful and responsive to unexpected clusters of infections.

Read more about the problem of hospital acquired infections (HAI) here.