Death at the Hands of the Health Care Industry

Hospital-acquired infections are still inadequately handled and very much misreported

by Pat Barone | Updated 10 Oct 2016 at 8:50 PM

The word “sepsis” at the moment means very little to many Americans. But it’s a condition we need to know about — our lives may depend on it.

Sepsis is the leading hospital in-patient diagnosis and costs more than any other health emergency. The fast-moving and deadly illness brought on by infection kills between 146,000 and 159,000 Americans each year — or so we thought.

Sepsis death rates may be as much as 140 percent higher than numbers reported on death certificates.

As more families, stunned at the loss of a loved one, emerge willing to share their stories and push hospitals about the actual cause of death, the estimates are quickly changing. What’s frightening is that no one seems certain or willing to admit just how devastating and rampant the condition may be.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in July stated that a review of data from previous years showed sepsis death rates may be as much as 140 percent higher than numbers reported on death certificates. The condition is now deemed a medical emergency, with outreach occurring to health care providers and the general public. Nearly 72 percent of patients with the illness had recently been seen by doctors and nurses, representing missed opportunities to catch it early or prevent it entirely.

Sepsis is a blood-borne bacterial or fungal infection characterized by high fevers, chills, rapid heart rate, and increased breathing. It can be rated as mild, moderate, or severe, depending on which organs are affected (and if the organ fails). Recent outbreaks confirm the biggest barriers to squashing sepsis continue to be consistent and honest reporting of the infection.

Related: The Lurking Killer You Barely Know

“It has been reported that 1 million people acquire sepsis each year, and approximately 40 percent do not survive,” said Annamarie Bondi-Stoddard, an attorney who represents sepsis patients and their survivors with Pegalis & Erickson LLC, in Lake Success, New York. “Because infection is a risk of many medical interventions, it is likely labeled a ‘risk of the procedure,’ inferring that it was unavoidable — which is often not the case. Sepsis, stemming from avoidable medical negligence from contamination, is rarely reported.”

Bondi-Stoddard told LifeZette she believes many people accept the "these things happen" explanation of health care providers when their loved ones are infected, or die due to infections.

Among the problems in addressing the issue head-on: In most cases, a hospital-acquired infection that led to death is never recorded on a death certificate. Many doctors have pushed the CDC to mandate all death certificates to have a separate designated space for "preventable hospital acquired infection" — but the CDC has not taken that step. Even if required, it may not assure truthful reporting either.

A separate survey by the CDC also found that 49 percent of medical residents admit they have deliberately omitted or misrecorded an infectious cause of death.

A greater challenge stems from emerging "superbugs," which are immune to antibiotics and kill patients in up to 50 percent of cases. Superbug infections now account for one in seven cases of catheter and post-surgical infections. Until recently, they still responded to an older drug, colistin — but even that is failing.

Sepsis in U.S.
  • Sepsis occurs most often in people aged 65 years or older or less than a year old, in those who have weakened immune systems, or in those who have chronic medical conditions.
  • Get immediate medical attention if you have any signs or symptoms of an infection or sepsis. This is a medical emergency.

"Admittedly, colistin had rather poor effectiveness compared to the newer drugs, but it was all there was," said Dr. Stephen C. Schimpff, of Catonsville, Maryland, a former academic health care CEO who researches trends for his blog "Recently an E. coli [bacteria] appeared in a patient in Pennsylvania that is resistant to all of the antibiotics plus colistin. Frankly, this is scary. There is no reason to presume it will not 'get around.'"

In another recent case at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) Medical Center, transmission of a superbug infection was traced to the use of duodenoscopes, or tubes with cameras on the end, used for the digestive tract. The same problem was found as early as 2012 in Pennsylvania and reported to the Food and Drug Administration, but the agency subsequently "lost the paperwork," according to a Senate inquiry panel investigating the matter.

Despite 15 outbreaks linked to infections in more than 140 people and three deaths, an investigation into the matter didn't ensue until the UCLA outbreak got media attention.

The majority of "clean" hospital textiles are teeming with harmful bacteria.

Accurate reporting could have set off alarms and saved lives. None of the previous cases were reported by the hospitals where the infections occurred. But the rush to eradicate sepsis is bringing about behavior changes and new products.

Karen Curtiss wrote a book, "Safe & Sound in the Hospital," after her father died of sepsis after a lung transplant and her husband spent 18 months recovering from sepsis and a VRE infection — all stemming from improper surgery preparation and care afterward.

In the book, she urges patients to clean the TV remotes, door knobs, telephones, bed rails, call buttons, faucets, toilet flush levers, and personal items with alcohol wipes and bleach wipes to help zap superbugs and germs. It's estimated only half of any hospital room's surfaces are adequately cleaned between patient turnover.

Related: The Medical Emergency You Must Know About

"Repeat cleaning after every touch or brush with clothing," she told LifeZette. "Doctors' jackets and scrubs and nurses' uniforms are like Trojan horses, carrying bugs all over the hospital."

The CDC reports that the majority of supposedly "clean" hospital textiles are teeming with harmful bacteria: Fifty-five percent of clean bed linens and 60 percent of staff uniforms are contaminated, and a third of hospital textiles show the presence of the superbug MRSA after washing.

Applied Silver Inc. designed and patented an ionic silver laundry solution, which kills bacteria resistant to antibiotics. It's being used at Dignity Health Central Coast facilities. The University of Dayton physician assistant practice program in Ohio began issuing germ-killing scrubs to students this semester. The Prime Medical's SAF-T™ scrubs continuously kill germs on contact.

Another product, Surface Shield, bonds to any surface, forming a non-toxic shield that kills and prevents the growth of bacteria, mold, mildew, algae, and yeast.

Even robots are getting involved. Xenex manufactures UV room disinfection devices — essentially germ-zapping robots — being used in 350 health care facilities, including the Mayo Clinic, Stanford University, and Orlando Health.

These products will help eliminate some of the causes of sepsis, but the crucial step of uniform and accurate reporting hasn't been addressed. Real numbers are a vital link to seeing the complete picture of the devastation caused by these infections, so that eradication is possible.

Pat Barone, MCC, is a professional credentialed coach and author of the Own Every Bite! bodycentric re-education program for mindful and intuitive eating, who helps clients heal food addictions.

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  2. fda
  3. sepsis
  4. superbug-infection
  5. ucla

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