Infections acquired in hospitals are one of the leading causes of patient deaths in the United States, according to a 2007 Seattle Times article. In the U.S., 1.7 million patients will get an infection during a hospital stay this year, and 99,000 of those patients will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Infections come in many shapes and sizes. One important infection to be aware of is the methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus infection (MRSA), which is a type of staph infection that is currently skyrocketing in prevalence. The number of MRSA infections doubled from 1999 to 2005.
MRSA is particularly problematic because it is resistant to most antibiotics that are usually used to treat staph infections. MRSA can present diagnostic problems because doctors may be led to believe that a patient is not suffering from a staph infection when antibiotics do not appear to be helping the problem. It can then be too late to treat the patient effectively with one of the few antibiotics that can combat MRSA, such as vancomycin, linezolid, or daptomycin.
Staph infections can be very minor, sometimes producing symptoms that are barely noticeable. But they can become very serious when combined with other illnesses. For example, a hospital patient with a staph infection might suffer few symptoms until contracting a flu virus. The infection will then be able to take advantage of the weakened immune system, and the combination may lead to pneumonia. The staph infection may then invade the lungs, which can cause serious complications.
The sections that follow discuss some common situations that can lead to a malpractice lawsuit based on a staph infection. We'll then explain why it is sometimes difficult for a patient to win a medical malpractice case based on a staph infection.
Common Fact Patterns Resulting in Lawsuits
Lack of Informed Consent. As the statistics above illustrate, staph infections are fairly common in hospitals. A hospital should warn patients of the risk of infections before the patient begins treatment. This is especially true for a patient that is especially prone to staph infections, such as a surgical patient.
Medical malpractice law might hold a hospital liable for a staph infection even when the infection was not preventable. If the hospital should have known of a high risk of infection to a particular patient, it should have given the patient an opportunity to opt out of the treatment. In such a situation, the patient only assumes the risk of the infection after providing informed consent.
Delay in Effective Treatment. A hospital may not have been responsible for a patient acquiring a staph infection, but it may be responsible for resulting harm based on failure to diagnose or treat the infection in a timely manner.
Surgical Neglect. Surgical patients run a particularly high risk of staph infection. The following mistakes might give rise to malpractice liability for an infection acquired during surgery:
- inadequate blood supply to dissected or manipulated tissue
- hemoglobin from shed blood making contact with the wound
- dead space left to collect bacteria, and
- debris making contact with the wound.
Failure to Follow Disinfection/Sterilization Protocol. This can range from improper handling of instruments to a simple failure to sterilize hands or clothing, to failure to keep floors and surfaces clean. New technology even allows hospitals to keep air cleaner, filtering out agents that can cause staph infections.
Winning a Medical Malpractice Case
A hospital will not always be liable when a patient acquires a staph infection under the hospital’s care. Some staph infections are unavoidable. In order to prevail, a patient must prove that the hospital acted negligently, and that the negligence caused the staph infection.
There can be a very fine line between winning and losing cases. Consider the examples of Patient A and Patient B.
Patient A goes to a hospital for treatment of severe flu symptoms. The next day, the symptoms worsen and pneumonia sets in. After several days of severe symptoms, doctors determine that Patient A has developed a staph infection. Patient A suspects that doctors and nurses would not always wash their hands when they entered the room and that the floors and surfaces may not have been cleaned on a daily basis. After being released from the hospital, Patient A sues for medical malpractice and loses.
Patient B goes to a hospital for the same reasons as Patient A and also acquires a staph infection. After being released, Patient B hires an expert medical witness who identifies the specific organism that caused Patient B’s infection. The expert testifies that this particular organism is significantly more likely to spread when doctors and staff fail to follow proper disinfection/sterilization protocol. Patient B noticed several lapses in protocol by doctors and nurses Patient B sues the hospital for medical malpractice and wins.
The difference, although seemingly minor, was that Patient B was able to create a stronger link between the negligent behavior and the staph infection.