What Ails Hospitals: Bed-to-Bed Infections

By Berens, Michael J. | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, January/February 2003 | Go to article overview

What Ails Hospitals: Bed-to-Bed Infections


Berens, Michael J., Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


The noble workings of hospitals have been ingrained on our memories since the first television doctor donned scrubs. But sometimes reality is not as grand; no one likes to think of nurses with dirty hands, surgeons who only have profit in mind, patients shuffled through the system without proper treatment and caregivers focused only on the bottom line. And yet investigations have shown again and again that while many medical personnel and hospitals try to answer that higher calling, there are others who use such poor practices that it's enough to make anyone sick.

Deadly germs spreading through nation's hospitals

Even before the first death, doctors feared operating room No. 2.

A germ lived inside what was supposed to be the hospital's safest and most sterile place. For more than a year, the devastatingly swift predator infiltrated dozens of patients with infections, destroying bone and tissue. Gloria Bonaffini, 71, was unaware that hospital germs had burrowed into the bodies of up to one in five Connecticut patients who passed through the room. She didn't know that room No. 2 was a place where dust sometimes littered the air because of faulty ventilation, where flies buzzed overhead during open heart surgery as some doctors wore germ-laden clothes from home into surgery, or failed to wash their hands.

She didn't learn any of these things before her death.

Nor do tens of thousands of patients who enter U.S. hospitals where the promise of clean and safe care has been undermined by widening cost-cutting measures and negligence.

But if so many people are unnecessarily dying or injured by germs inside hospitals - as detailed in a Tribune investigation, "Unhealthy Hospitals" - journalists might wonder why there appears to be scant evidence of this national crisis.

Last summer, the Tribune reported that in 2000, nearly three-quarters of deadly hospital-acquired infections - or about 75,000 - were preventable.

Specifically, deaths linked to hospital germs represent the fourth-leading cause of mortality among Americans behind heart disease, cancer and strokes.

The pursuit of this story begins in the traditional trenches of journalism - court records, investigative reports and interviews - and culminates in stacks of computer databases that were merged in creative ways.

Bed to bed

In 1998, at least 31 Chicago children contracted flu-like infections and eight died as a microscopic invader snaked through a 93-bed long-term care medical center. The tragedy marked one of the city's most devastating infection outbreaks. Yet the Chicago Department of Public Health kept the deadly outbreak a secret from the public.

City employees, however, couldn't resist the temptation to write about the case for an obscure health care journal read typically by medical professionals. The article contained stunning details, such as how dozens of nurses routinely failed to wash their hands and how a dozen ill and feverish workers continued to provide care to healthy children as the germ spread bed to bed.

In hundreds of cases nationally, hospital infection rates can be gleaned from research reports even when the hospital refuses to provide current or historical data. You might be pleasantly surprised by the confessional tone of many reports. One doctor wrote about how a multinational pharmaceutical company, touting a new infection control drug, flew dozens of doctors to a Western U.S. resort lodge and lavished gifts and food on them.

If you plan a similar investigation, pay special attention to papers or presentations delivered at medical conferences. At a conference early last year, an Alabama nurse set up a poster board display to show the path of a deadly germ in a nursery unit.

Research reports typically mask the name of hospitals. Simply find where the authors are employed; more times than not, the primary author is employed where the outbreak occurred. …

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