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Healthcare-associated infections: How common are they?

A prestigious reputation is not a defense against hospital-acquired infections.

This was evident last week, when the Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins and other prominent institutions received low ratings from Consumer Reports on the prevention of one of the worst types of infection: Clostridium difficile or C. diff., an inflammation of the colon that involves severe diarrhea.

Certainly it's a concern when even some of the country's best-known hospitals have plenty of problems with healthcare-related infections (HAIs). But this is only the tip of the iceberg of two larger problems.

One problem is the sheer number of HAIs and the illnesses and deaths that result from them. Another is the rise of "superbugs" - infections that are resistant to antibiotics and are often fatal.

CDC report

The Centers for Disease Control has issued a new report that attempts to quantify how common hospital-acquired infections are. The CDC found that on a particular day in America, about 1 in 25 patients in hospitals has at least one HAI.

These infections don't come out of the blue. They are caused by factors that include poor hand hygiene, excessive use of antibiotics and failure to keep rooms clean. Carelessness in the insertion of catheters, as well as other tubes, is another common cause.

HAIs aren't a new issue, either. The CDC, the Health and Human Services Department and hospital systems themselves have been trying to reign in the problem, such as by using checklists to enforce hand hygiene protocols. The CDC's recent report was an attempt to show how well those efforts are faring.

The report showed that certain types of infections have declined somewhat in recent years. But the number of C. diff cases is still very high, at more than 400,000 per year.

Fatal consequences

All of those infections take a terrible toll. To be sure, not all of them are harmful and not all are caused by medical negligence. But the CDC reported that in 2011, about 75,000 patients with HAIs died while hospitalized.

The rise of "superbugs" that are resistant to antibiotics makes this problem even more challenging to solve. The CDC found that about 2 million people get sick every year from infections that are resistant to traditional antibiotics. About 23,000 of those patients die.

Your circumstances

If someone close to you was harmed or killed by a healthcare-related infection, you may wonder what you can do. In that situation, it makes sense to discuss your legal options with an attorney knowledgeable about medical malpractice.

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