A Patient’s Biggest Job Is Not What You Think

Infections will happen in health care settings, but knowing what to watch for may save your life

If your newborn was receiving care in a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and it had a superbug outbreak — would you want to know?

A nurse last week filed a wrongful termination lawsuit against Cooper University Hospital in Camden, New Jersey, alleging she was fired in retribution for reporting the alleged mishandling of a staph infection outbreak in the NICU. She claimed the infection led to the death of at least one infant.

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Two infants did die in the July 2016 outbreak — but state health officials said they could not necessarily attribute the deaths to the infections, as intensive care patients “can be medically fragile.”

Eight other infants were infected with MRSA, a type of staph bacteria resistant to the antibiotic methicillin. An additional 15 patients were carriers of the bacteria but did not become ill, according to the health department.

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Nurse Catherine Tanksley-Bowe, Ph.D., claimed the hospital failed to follow state guidelines to prevent the infection from spreading, as reported. Her lawsuit states that on Aug. 8, she told the hospital’s administrator and environmental service representative that some necessary steps to prevent cross-contamination weren’t being following and staff weren’t properly cleaning supplies.

“Large-scale outbreaks are infrequent, but small patient-to-patient or provider-to-patient transmission events likely occur all the time,” said an infectious disease expert.

She also alleges that around the same time, she told Cooper’s chief of pediatrics that the hospital should stop accepting babies into its intensive care unit and notify nearby hospitals. Tanksley-Bowe said the hospital continued to accept infants in the NICU and did not notify nearby hospitals. She was fired on Aug. 11 without any verbal or written reason, the suit states.

The hospital’s response said the nurse wanted “hundreds of thousands of dollars” from the hospital in exchange for not filing a lawsuit. Cooper officials claim they notified the state about the MRSA infections, handled the situation appropriately, and cooperated fully. They added in a statement that Tanksley-Bowe “is a disgruntled nurse, who was employed by Cooper University Health Care for only a month before being terminated due to unrelated issues.”

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Many will be watching how this case plays out because of the lives lost and the broader implications. In the meantime, the situation once again raises the question: How often are these infections spreading in health care facilities without the knowledge of the public — and how do we know for sure that where we seek care is safe?

“Hospital-acquired infections are a major threat and an ever-present risk,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior associate professor and clinical assistant professor at the Center for Health Security at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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“Large-scale outbreaks in any area of a hospital are infrequent, but small patient-to-patient or provider-to-patient transmission events likely occur all the time,” he told LifeZette. All hospitals must practice infection control, Adalja added — but he advised that patients watch for how scrupulously health care workers follow protocols (or not). Is hand washing occurring before and after every patient visit? Do patients with MRSA, for example, have a dedicated stethoscope only for them?

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In other words, while you want to trust that your health care providers are doing the best they can to protect you — you’ve also got to look out for your own best interests.

“Robust infection control is the only means to minimize their impact,” said Adalja. “Are [care providers] washing their hands before and after each patient contact? Are only some of their providers wearing gowns or gloves when required? Some level of hospital-acquired infection is to be expected. However, hospitals must continuously improve their capabilities to prevent, detect, and stop outbreaks that are the result of lax infection control. Public reporting of infections rates will have an impact on hospital reputations.”

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