Posted by Bill Sandweg.
Although everyone wishes it were otherwise, infections and hospitals are inextricably linked. Hospitals treat the sickest people and many of them have infections. Some of those infections have developed resistance to antibiotics. Despite programs to promote good hygiene and prevent the spread of infection, infections move from patient to patient.
We receive calls on a regular basis about patients who developed an infection in the hospital. Often these infections have led to disastrous outcomes, including limb amputations, organ failure and death. These are particularly sad cases because, except in unusual circumstances, it is almost impossible to prove that an infection was the result of medical negligence. Any expert witness testifying on behalf of a plaintiff in an infection case will be forced to admit that infections can happen in the best hospitals with the best nurses and the best doctors doing the best that they can. No one ever sees a nurse or doctor entering the patient’s room carrying infection-causing bacteria. Short of an infection outbreak in a hospital, which suggests a problem with infection control, it is almost always a mystery as to how the patient became infected.
If we cannot prove that the infection was the result of medical malpractice, we cannot recover for the patient against the hospital or doctor who transmitted the infection to the patient. This means that when confronted with an infection case, we must go to the next question: Was the infection identified promptly and treated appropriately? Many times the answer is that it was not identified and treated promptly and appropriately.
When there was a delay or a delay coupled with inappropriate treatment, we can bring a claim for the infected patient or the patient’s family and have a chance of success. One limitation, however, is that we can never recover for the original infection. We can only recover for the additional damage caused by the delay or the inappropriate treatment. Sometimes, this means that the recovery for the patient will be quite limited. On other occasions, when the infection could and should have been nipped in the bud, we may be able to make a recovery for almost all the harm suffered by the patient.
Infection cases are also tough cases because the defense always has a number of arguments available to it. They will argue that the infection was hard to spot and that they discovered it as soon as was reasonably possible. They will say that we are being unrealistic in claiming that the infection could have been discovered earlier. Next they will argue that the infection was very advanced, even by the time we say it should have been detected, and would have been very hard to treat successfully. Lastly, they will argue that the infection was a bad one which would not have responded well even to earlier treatment so whatever damage resulted was likely to occur no matter what.
There is still more the medical profession can do to prevent the spread of infections. It has been pointed out that a male doctor’s tie is one of the most germ-infested things in the hospital. It goes with the doctor from room to room and from patient to patient and is rarely, if ever, disinfected. Despite hospital protocols for hand washing, people are only human and sometimes do not wash as frequently as they should. Patient advocates suggest patients should not let a nurse or doctor touch them unless they assure themselves that the nurse or doctor just washed their hands. While there is little we can do when we are patients in the hospital to prevent becoming infected, this is at least something we can do. If it offends the doctor or nurse, too bad.