As with many legal questions, the answer is a resounding “maybe.” No one goes to the hospital with the expectation that they will catch a hospital-borne infection while there, but it happens with alarming frequency, and the consequences of an infection may be dire.

If an infection is the result of the hospital’s negligence, medical malpractice, the use of defective medical products, or a deliberate misdeed, then the hospital may bear legal responsibility for the consequences.

Healthcare acquired infections (HAIs) are alarmingly common

A healthcare acquired infection, or HAI, is an infection that a patient acquires in the hospital when admitted for another reason.  These commonly include staphylococcus, respiratory, blood stream and urinary tract infections and affect as many as 180,000 Australians every year. Furthermore, most of them can be prevented through the exercise of ordinary professional care.

At the very least, these infections may cause a longer hospital stay, longer recovery time and greater expense. But stories abound of more serious consequences including heart damage, limbs that must be amputated and drug resistant “superbugs” capable of killing as many as a quarter of those affected.

Why does this happen?

At the outset it is important to recognise that hospitals are full of people in fragile health whose immune systems may already be compromised.  Sick people that are crowded together are more likely to infect one another and invasive procedures like surgery increase that risk even further.

However, the most commonly-mentioned trigger for an outbreak of infection is inadequate hand washing.  Although they likely begin with the best of intentions and scrupulous attention to hand sanitation, healthcare professionals get busy and they may become careless.  Recent surveys have suggested that doctors’ compliance with hand washing protocols is as low as one-third of suggested performance.

Thereafter, the most common cause seems to be the inadequate cleaning of equipment and rooms. In some cases, the causes may work together. A healthcare worker may touch a patient’s bed rail with dirty hands. When the patient touches the bed rail and then her face, the transmission loop is complete. The inadequate sterilisation of surgical instruments poses an additional threat.

Lack of protective clothing such as gowns and masks, inadequate kitchen practices and the long term overuse of antibiotics may also play a role.

Sometimes the equipment used in surgical procedures like heating and cooling devices used in heart surgery, have been linked to serious infections because they are particularly difficult to keep clean. These have resulted in products liability lawsuits that may secondarily implicate hospitals if they can be shown to have acted indifferently on learning of the danger.

As an aside, it is also worth mentioning that hospital workers are also at risk of infection in their workplaces. Healthcare facilities like any other places of employment have a legal duty to protect employees from workplace hazards including transmissible disease.

What can you do?

It seems a bit much to ask people who are ill or injured to protect themselves from the dangers of healthcare acquired infections. That is however the first line of defence.

You or your loved ones may without question ask a healthcare professional to wash his or her hands or change gloves as you watch. Do not hesitate to bring a soiled dressing, an uncomfortable catheter, dingy linens or the growing suspicion that you are running a fever to the attention of an appropriate person.  You are not being a nuisance; you are guarding your health.

If you believe that you have acquired an infection during your hospital stay, you should contact a lawyer as soon as possible and assist him or her as possible by authorizing requests for any and all medical records. It is not your job to detect the source of the infection, necessarily. That is something your lawyer can do for you.

The attorneys at Owen Hodge Lawyers would be happy to help you if you or a family member has been injured because of an infection acquired in the course of a hospital stay or visit. Please call us to schedule a consultation at 1800 770 780.