Malpractice Liability for Infection Acquired in a Hospital

If a patient contracts an infection in a hospital, their health can go from bad to worse - and the hospital may be liable in a medical malpractice lawsuit.

Hospital-acquired infections are not uncommon, but when treated quickly and appropriately they may not be all that dangerous to a patient. However, in cases where a patient acquires an infection that goes undiagnosed or untreated for too long, sepsis and septic shock can result. This is one reason why hospitals and other health care facilities are required to adhere to very stringent practices when it comes to sterility and cleanliness of the treatment environment -- and why failure to follow safe practices can amount to medical negligence. Read on to learn more.

What is Hospital-Acquired Infection?

Hospital acquired infection (HAI) is defined as an infection that occurs in a hospital patient and is not associated with the patient's admitted diagnosis or health issue. In terms of time frames, if an infection occurs 48 hours after hospital admittance, it is likely an HAI. Given the wide array of bacteria found in a hospital or other clinical setting, combined with the often-diminished immune capacity of a hospital patient, the likelihood of acquiring an infection is increased in certain hospital settings and treatment scenarios.

How Infections are Acquired - and Who's on the Legal Hook?

An infection is generally acquired in a hospital in three ways, which are defined as three different "risk factors":

Patient Risk Factors

Patient risk factors include the duration of the patient's stay in a clinical setting, the severity of the illness or injury for which the patient was admitted, and the function and capacity of their immune system during their visit.

Organizational Risk Factors

These include the cleanliness of the hospital and treatment setting in general, including the filtration of the HVAC system, concentration of patient beds, cleanliness of water systems, cleanliness of building surfaces, and sterility of medical devices.

Iatrogenic Risk Factors

Iatrogenic risk factors include the care with which the doctors, hospital staff, nurses and other care providers perform. This includes the frequency with which hands are washed, use of antibiotics, and especially care used during invasive procedures such as intravenous administration of medication, intubation, and urine catheterization.

Because it's so difficult to show exactly how the infection was transmitted - only that it occurred while in treatment - the hospital itself is the most likely to be held responsible.

Symptoms and Dangers of Sepsis

The symptoms of sepsis stemming from an acquired infection are general, body-wide inflammation, elevated heart rate, elevated respiratory rate, fever, and elevated white blood cell count (also referred to as leukocytosis).

If an infection goes untreated and is allowed to escalate into sepsis, the potential for serious injury is substantial. Sepsis can lead to severe injury and damage to internal organs, and can even result in death. Mortality rates for sepsis range from 20% to 40%, and it is one of the major causes of death following treatment in emergency rooms and intensive care units.

Hospital Liability for Sepsis or Septic Shock Injury or Death

Determining liability for injuries or death resulting from HAI and sepsis can be very challenging from a legal perspective, and requires an investigation into the specific circumstances of how the infection was acquired, why it was not promptly treated, and whether it could or should have been prevented. Where hospitals are involved, it isn't always clear who is liable for the patient's infection, and if a doctor seems to be the one responsible, the hospital may not be on the legal hook if the doctor was actually an independent contractor as opposed to an employee.

Can The Patient or Family Members Sue The Hospital?

In order to bring a successful lawsuit for damages resulting from HAI and sepsis, the defendant's liability will need to be established, usually by a qualified expert medical witness (a neutral third party medical doctor) who examines the treatment situation and determines if there was compliance with the appropriate medical standard of care at every turn. If it is found that the infection was preventable, and that it occurred due to the negligence of a medical professional, then a lawsuit has a good chance of success.

The patient can bring a medical malpractice lawsuit within a short time frame, or, in the worst case scenario, family members can sue the hospital for wrongful death.

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