Hospital Infections & The Law

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Hospitals are generally viewed as a safe haven for sick individuals. However, people are increasingly becoming critically unwell due to an infection caught during their time spent in hospital. According to a recent study, between 5% and 10% of patients admitted to hospital in Australia will acquire an infection during their stay.

If this has happened to you or someone you know, do not hesitate to contact a lawyer that specialises in hospital infections.

Common Types of Infections

An article by the Australian Medical Journal in 2002 identified methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) as the main type of infection that can be contracted within a hospital. In Australia, MRSA has been a known major hospital-acquired pathogen since the 80’s, especially in some of the larger city-based hospitals.

The highest chance of contracting MRSA is following surgery that exposes you to the airborne infection via open wounds. Most infections start as small red bumps that can develop into sore, open wounds that require medical attention. MRSA can also contribute to more serious infections of the bone, blood, lungs and other parts of the body.

One of the major concerns is that MRSA is not easily detectable and the appearance of symptoms and signs of infection may not be present until way after the patient has been discharged from hospital. However, if not treated quickly, MRSA infections can lead to critical sepsis and in some extreme cases, amputation or death.

Some other common forms of infection include:

  • Urinary tract infection from a catheter
  • Bloodstream infections
  • Infections of the wound
  • Pneumonia or lung infections
  • Resistant Enterococcus (also called vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus)
  • Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae

Reasons for Infection

There are a number of reasons why a patient can contract an infection, from continued use of antibiotic medicine to the individual patient’s immune system. However, research has shown that the number one reason for infections in hospitals is due to improper cleaning practices.

Hand washing is vital to prevent the spread of infections in hospitals, particularly for MRSA. Hospitals have very rigid hygiene standards for all employees, which include washing hands with liquid soap when visibly soiled, and cleaning with alcohol-based handrub.

The best practice in Australian hospitals for doctors and nurses to be compliant in washing their hands is 70% of the time between patients. However the observed best practice in the larger hospitals is currently at 35%. This can mean that some doctors are only ever washing their hands once between every four patients they see, thereby becoming a carrier for infections such as MRSA.

In addition to handwashing, another contributor to the spread of hospital infections are the thorough cleaning of the hospital rooms. Hospitals in Australia often employ third-party cleaning companies to conduct and carry out the cleaning. According to the NSW Health Environmental Cleaning Policy (2012); “All public health organisations and their staff have a duty of care under common law to take all reasonable steps to safeguard patients, visitors and staff from infection”. However, as the number of patients infected with MRSA is on the rise, we can infer that the traditional ‘manual’ cleaning and disinfection practices in hospitals are sub optimal.

In recent years, technological advancements have been developed to control the spread of infections. The centre for Antimicrobial Resistance & Infection Control published a research paper last year, recommending that all hospitals invest in newer automated decontamination technologies (such as aerosol and vaporised disinfectant). These technologies, with an increase of the use of UV-C light to view otherwise unable to be seen antimicrobial infections will ensure that the rate of MRSA infections will decrease.

Workers’ compensation / injury compensation

While these types of infections are common amongst patients, MRSA can also be an occupational hazard for hospital workers. Once a healthcare worker has contracted MRSA, it can be dangerous for them to return to work until they have recovered from the condition.

If a healthcare worker has been diagnosed with MRSA, it is possible that they can claim workers compensation if they believe the infection was due to improper cleaning standards. To validate the claim, they will need to put together evidence to show that their place of work did not take sufficient precautions to protect workers from being exposed to MRSA, or that there was inaction to prevent contracting MRSA.

What can be done?

In some cases, hospitals can be held liable for negligence in cases of hospital infections. Liability for hospital infections will depend on:

  • Whether the hospital has introduced & implemented best practice infection control measures
  • Whether the hospital is liable for negligent or intentional failures by staff or employees to comply with infection control measures.

Hospital infections are different from medical malpractice, and if you believe you have contracted a hospital infection due to negligence, it is imperative that you contact a lawyer that is familiar with hospital infection and MRSA cases.


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