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Hospital acquired infections - a new era in germ warfare

In our practice, we get a number of calls from people who have suffered injuries due to infections contracted during their hospital stay. Studies have shown that more than 220,000 Canadians develop infections during a hospital stay each year and, on average, these infections kill 22 patients each day - more than leukemia and breast cancer combined.

In an attempt to combat this issue, scientists are developing new antibiotics, hospitals are redesigning wards to have more single-patient rooms to reduce the spread of infections, and companies are developing new technologies to wipe out bacteria. However, one of the simplest ways to combat infections in hospitals may be one of the most effective.

A recent Globe and Mail article identified hospital cleaners as gatekeepers in preventing the spread of infectious bacteria. This is becoming more of an issue as worldwide concern grows over the pervasiveness of hospital-acquired infection, and the threat of antibiotic resistance looms.

Hospitals represent an ideal environment for "superbugs" - bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics - to thrive, due to high antibiotic use and invasive medical procedures being performed on patients with weakened defenses. Where antibiotics are used unnecessarily, they kill some bacteria, but produce an ideal breeding ground for resistant strains to multiply and spread. If every surface is not completely disinfected with industrial strength chemicals, an outbreak of drug-resistant bacteria can occur, killing vulnerable patients in its path.

Infection control experts warn that Canada is not doing enough to control the issue of hospital infections and the threat of superbugs, and that national monitoring of hospital-acquired infections is badly underfunded. Adding to the problem is the fact that health is a provincial responsibility in Canada, leading to an uncoordinated response to the issue of antibiotic resistance.

Unfortunately, despite the essential role that hospital housekeepers play in combatting infection, cleaners are an easy target for cuts when health care budgets are tight and demands on hospitals greater than ever. In British Columbia, hospital cleaning was privatized over a decade ago, and hospitals across the country are increasingly following suit - a trend that has a number of negative consequences. A 2008 report by the Hospital Employees' Union of BC found that privatization of this service led to increased staff turnover and dramatically reduced the time cleaners spent at health care facilities.

Whatever problems hospitals may face regarding infection control, the law demands that reasonable care be taken to protect patients from harm while they are in the hospital, and to recognize infections and provide prompt and appropriate treatment. Patients who suffer harm due to a failure to prevent, or detect and treat, hospital-acquired infections have the right to compensation. The courts will only award this compensation if it can be proven that the appropriate standards were not followed and that if the standards had been followed, the harm would not have occurred.

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