Hospital Liability for Infections

August 4, 2022
Hospital Liability for Infections

Hospitals should be seen as a community’s safe place – a place where people treat their ailments, recover, and heal. But too often, hospitals make matters worse. Instead of havens of health, these institutions can fester with infections and become centers for breeding bacteria and germs. 

In 2018, J.R. Baker was a nurse at Cherokee Nation’s W. W. Hastings Hospital. Baker is also the son of former Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker. Hospital staff learned Baker reused the same syringes on multiple patients while administering medications and injecting intravenous bags. 

Cherokee Nation health officials called the incidents a “lapse in protocol.” More than 180 patients had to be contacted and warned they were potentially exposed to Hepatitis C and HIV. 

Two of these patients sued W.W. Hastings in 2020 for emotional distress, and both asked for $125,000 in damages. The lawsuit claims that neither of these women were notified by the hospital staff in a timely manner.

One woman was never notified about the exposure to infection, until she contacted the hospital after hearing the other patients were exposed. One woman endured nine months of continuous blood screenings to verify she was not infected. The other woman never received a notification and only contacted the hospital after she heard other patients had been informed about the possible exposure.

W.W. Hastings opened in 1936 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma. Initially, the facility served as an Indian Health Service hospital. It was annexed into Northeastern State University Campus and expanded to more than 152,000 square feet to compensate for its increased direct patient care.

The Cherokee Nation recently opened an innovative outpatient health center and a new OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. Baker apologized and resigned. W.W. Hastings revised their policies to include additional employee training and monitoring. The procedures for reporting incidents were also revised.

Fortunately, all the patients’ follow-up tests have yielded negative results.

The Never Event that Happened

Whitney Jarvis was not so fortunate. On a spring day, back in 2014, Jarvis was out on the pitch, a soccer star in her junior year at Oklahoma Christian College. She took a hard fall and tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. She would need surgery to repair it.

About six weeks later, the 23-year-old athlete was on a surgical table in Oklahoma City’s Mercy Hospital. Four days after surgery, Jarvis was in intense pain. She was weak and lethargic, running a high fever. The doctor was called, and x-rays discovered he had accidentally closed her incision, leaving a Ray-Tec surgical sponge in her knee.Whitney Jarvis was not so fortunate. On a spring day, back in 2014, Jarvis was out on the pitch, a soccer star in her junior year at Oklahoma Christian College. She took a hard fall and tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee. She would need surgery to repair it. 

Four days after her first surgery, the sponge was surgically removed. After three operations to remove damaged tissue later and undergoing years of physical therapy, Jarvis is still in pain. She still cannot run. Her leg has not regained full range of motion, and her knee never properly healed.

The Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations refers to an instrument being left inside a patient during surgery as a “never event” or “sentinel event” because it is such a preventable and serious event that it should never occur. These types of events call for the hospital to conduct immediate investigations and respond urgently.

For a large sponge to be left in a small area like a knee indicates overlooking typical surgery protocols and carelessness by the surgical team. Jarvis and her family filed a lawsuit against Mercy Hospital in 2016. They are seeking compensation for the additional surgeries and treatments resulting from the damage the left-behind sponge has done, the pain and suffering, and the circumstances she will have to deal with going forward. They also want the hospital to correct the issues with personnel and policies that initially caused the mishap.

The Occurrence of Hospital Acquired Infections 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), healthcare-associated infections (HAIs) are diagnosed in about 1 in 25 patients annually in the U.S. This adds up to hundreds of thousands of patients infected solely because they received care at a hospital.

The CDC reports HAIs often come from devices used in medical procedures or to help patients recover. These devices are typically invasive like catheters, syringes, ventilators, and surgical equipment. These common HAIs may include: 

  • Central line-associated bloodstream infections
  • Catheter-associated urinary tract infections
  • Ventilator-associated pneumonia 
  • Surgical site infections. 

HAIs compromise the treatment and recovery of the patient’s initial conditions that brought them to the hospital in the first place. A weakened immune system can add to the complications, and because so many HAIs result from such strong antibiotic-resistant bacteria, cases can lead quickly to sepsis. Death results in the most dangerous cases. CDC data shows that HAIs account for almost 100,000 people dying from infections while hospitalized yearly.

In many cases, medical malpractice, or medical neglect cause HAIs. Failures by medical professionals providing an accepted standard of care lead to infections. These failures may include:

  • Failing to meticulously clean or completely sterilize equipment and devices
  • Improper sharing of equipment or devices between patients
  • Misusing antibiotics
  • Neglecting protocols or performing unauthorized procedures
  • Neglecting to properly wash hands
  • Not communicating or poor communication among medical staff

Unlike the above examples, liability and medical malpractice is not always obvious. Proving an infection was acquired from a hospital or medical center can require detailed investigations to determine exactly when an HAI developed. This often entails collecting testimony from witnesses and eliciting expert testimony from highly respected third-party witnesses. Investigations also involve pouring over hospital charts and medical records to identify evidence.

 To establish a medical malpractice lawsuit, three key questions need to be answered:

  • Did the healthcare professional fail to meet the accepted standards of care?
  • Was an infection a direct result of a medical professional’s neglect?
  • Did the patient incur financial or non-financial damages because of the infection? 

Not only do HAIs cause significant medical challenges to patients, but these infections can also damage a patient’s finances and derail their lives. This damage may include:

  • Lost earnings
  • Loss of earning potential
  • Past and future medical costs
  • Pain and suffering 

Regularly cleaned hospital rooms and public areas, sterilized instruments, and equipment, and properly worn personal protection equipment (PPE) around infectious patients and materials—Just a few of the litany of protocols established to promote safety and protect patients from unnecessary contact with bacteria, germs, and infection. 

Even with these numerous regulations in place, people still acquire infections from the very place that is supposed to be making and keeping them healthy.

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