Case Study: Infections at the Surgical Site

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This post looks at the rise of hospital infections that occur at the surgical site. This post also discusses what legal avenues patients can explore if they catch an infection at the surgical site, or if they believe that the surgical instruments used were infected.


Oftentimes, when a patient contracts an infection from their stay in hospital, they are told that it is simply ‘bad luck’. However in most cases this is not the truth. This is purely what many doctors and health care professionals want you to think.


These infections are incredibly risky and for patients that are already in an immunocompromised state, and can potentially have life-impacting consequences. A particular form of hospital acquired infections are infections that form at the surgical site. These infections are particularly sinister and can have reactions that are far-reaching and can even cause further damage than the surgery was looking to fix.


In this post, we look at whether or not there has been a rise in hospital infections in Australian hospitals, and what you can do if you catch an infection at the site of surgery, or if you believe that the surgical instruments used were infected.


How did I get this infection?


Once a patient notifies healthcare professionals about an infection present at the surgical site, they are often told that it is purely a case of ‘bad luck’ and that there is nothing that the hospital could’ve done. Recent studies into this are dismissing this and putting the onus of care back onto the hospitals.


Studies conducted into postoperative surgical site infections in the United States determined that infections are caused either by bacteria present on the patient’s skin, or external sources such as hospital workers, the hospital environment and instruments used during surgery.  


Certain preoperative and intraoperative risk factors for surgical site infections include:

  • Improper use of antimicrobial prophylaxis (a substance that kills or inhibits the growth of microorganisms that can cause infection)
  • Infection at the remote site not treated prior to surgery
  • Shaving the site versus clipping
  • The duration of surgery
  • Improper skin preparation
  • Improper surgical team hand preparation
  • Ventilation and sterilization of the operating room
  • Surgical attire and scrubs
  • Surgical technique (sterile field, foreign bodies etc)


A common argument employed by hospitals and hospital workers are that the bacteria was already present on the patient’s skin. This tactic is used to attempt to put the onus back onto the patient. However, it is critical prior to a surgery that hospitals carry out optimisation of antimicrobial prophylaxis, widely regarded as one of the most important interventions in preventing surgical site infections. Its purpose is to provide a brief course of an antimicrobial agent in order to reduce the likelihood of contamination, without overwhelming the patients natural immune defence.


If a hospital properly carries out the optimisation of antimicrobial prophylaxis, the chance of receiving an infection during or post surgery is significantly reduced.   


Infections on the rise?


Unfortunately, Australia does not undertake any type of survey that looks into the prevalence of infections that are caught in hospital. Nor do we have a national surveillance system that collects and reports data on hospital-acquired infections. We are one of the only countries in the OECD that lacks such basic information and data.


However, a number of studies have been done in the United States as to this issue and the data is that approximately 5% of surgeries result in a surgical site infections. According to this data, surgical site infections are the third most frequently reported nosocomial infection and are associated with substantial morbidity that can endanger a patient’s life, increase the number of days in the hospital, and increase healthcare costs.   


Surgical site infections are defined as infections that occur 30 days after surgery with no implant, or within one year if an implant is placed and the infection looks to be localised to the surgical site. It is important to understand your rights as a patient, and what you can do if you believe that you have received an infection due to your stay in hospital.


Owen Hodge Lawyers can help if you believe that you have received an infection due to surgery. Call us today on 1800 770 780 or send us an enquiry email at [email protected]. Surgical site infections can have long lasting and devastating consequences – we can help you understand who is really at fault.   

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