A large Boston jury verdict in the case of a woman who died from an infection while undergoing cancer treatment illustrates a growing trend across the country toward lawsuits against health-care providers for causing (or not preventing) such infections.
Nationally, more than 2 million people each year develop serious infections while they’re in the hospital being treated for something else. And about 90,000 of them die as a result. In addition, another 1.4 million people each year develop infections while in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
In the Boston case, a mother of two young girls who was undergoing cancer treatment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute developed a flesh-eating bacterial infection and died. Her family sued the doctors, and a jury awarded them $13.5 million. (Dana-Farber wasn’t sued.)
One reason this type of lawsuit has become more common recently is a sharp uptick in cases of MRSA, one of the deadliest such infections.
MRSA stands for “Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus.” It’s basically a staph infection that doesn’t respond to treatment with common antibiotics. Typical symptoms are a high fever accompanied by skin wounds, such as boils, abscesses, lesions and blisters.
Of course, not all infections that develop in a hospital are the hospital’s fault. Many people enter hospitals already carrying staph bacteria. The bacteria don’t affect them when they are healthy, but they gain a foothold when the person’s immune system is compromised – usually by whatever condition brought them to the hospital in the first place.
However, MRSA can also be spread as a result of unsanitary conditions, so if a hospital or nursing home fails to take reasonable precautions against the spread of the bacteria, it could be held responsible in court. (Many successful lawsuits have been brought against prisons because of MRSA, because prisons tend to be much less sanitary than hospitals.)
The threat of lawsuits has caused many hospitals and nursing homes to enact stricter measures to protect patients against harm.
Lawsuits can also be brought against doctors and hospitals for failing to properly diagnose an infection, which is what happened in the Dana-Farber case.
If you’re in a hospital, one of the best ways to prevent infections is to ask your visitors to thoroughly wash their hands before entering your room. If you’re going to have surgery, consider asking your surgeon to test you for MRSA at least a week before you’re admitted to the hospital.