The Human Experience and Cost of Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAI)

Help Fight This Top Ten Killer

Article first published as The Human Cost of Healthcare-Associated Infections (HAI) on Blogcritics.

Though it is a top ten killer in the US, Health-Associated Infections (HAI) have not received the level of attention compared to other other diseases. Yet, the facts are still staggering and the human experience is one still plagued by fear and uncertainty. Do you know how to protect yourself and loved ones from HAI?

This article focuses on the human side of the story, shares advise from three people who have experienced it first hand, and attempts to give you a glimpse at how HAI impacts each of us today. With the age of antibiotics coming to a close, it is more important than ever to have the knowledge to protect yourself and loved ones when visiting healthcare facilities, from a hospital, an outpatient clinic, or even your own physician’s office.

As you read this story, think of the costs of HAI. One in ten people entering healthcare are infected. One in a hundred die. Help raise the awareness around a top ten killer, Health-Associated Infections.

Human Cost of HAI, Infographic by John Palmer and Brian Regienczuk
Click to see full size. Infographic by John Palmer and Brian Regienczuk.

For a primer on HAI, please read my previous article “Fear of the Unknown and Healthcare’s Hush Around HAI” or visit Wikipedia’s page on the subject, also known as nosocomial infections.

To bring these numbers to life, let’s start with Tracy Hanes, whose mother was infected during outpatient surgery to install a pacemaker for her heart condition. Mr. Hanes mother was no stranger to hospitals and had previously had several heart attacks and stints put in.

The resulting HAI from her pacemaker surgery “took six months of her life she will never get back,” said Mr. Hanes, “and six months her grandchildren and all of us were scared for her life.” To recover from such a sever infection, his mother had to relearn everything, even how to walk.

#1. Ask Tough Questions
Mr. Hanes recommends asking tough questions before any procedure, such as:

  • What are the facility’s infection rates compared to the state and national averages?
  • What are the infection rates for the type of procedure you are getting?
  • What types and number of HAI cases does the facility have?
  • What policies, procedures and inspections take place to combat HAI at the facility?

These types of questions are a great start if you have the time to choose your facility. Even in some states whose hospitals all had infection rates lower than national average, there may be better facilities where infection rates are much lower.

Another patient, Charlie Wachtel, regularly has to have dialysis for a preexisting illness and started experiencing sever stomach pain. His experience became complicated because he had to seek treatment over the weekend at a hospital instead of his normal dialysis clinic.

As a result, he spent more than eight hours waiting and being passed between nurses who were not sure how to administer the antibiotics to treat a fairly common HAI for his condition. At a specialist clinic, he would have been treated in a few hours.

According to Mr. Wachtel, one nurse readily admitted that she was, “not sure how to do the procedure.” The nurse who finally administered the treatment still seemed unsure and left his catheter open and exposed for 5 minutes, versus the usual 10 seconds or so, something that could have led to further complications and infections.

#2. Bring An Advocate, Know Where Experts Are
Mr. Wachtel said that the fear of the unknown in a healthcare environment when you are already suffering only adds to your stress, and he feels lowers your body’s ability to fight infections. He recommends:

  • Have someone with you that will speak up, question healthcare providers and look out for you.
  • Investigate ahead of time to make sure the facility your visiting has skilled people who know what they are doing, especially if you or a loved one suffers from a chronic illness.

With a shortage of skilled healthcare professionals expected to only get worse over the next 5 years and healthcare corporations trying to cut costs, it sounds we need to be on the lookout for lower quality of care. Both of Mr. Watchtel’s suggestions seem to make sense if this is the case. Mr. Hanes echoed this sentiment, stating, “if yor advocate isn’t vigilante, you may never know what types of oversights happen at the hospital that can cause a dramatic difference in your recovery.”

The highest cost of all is loss of a loved one, and Cerridwen Fallingstar lost her husband to a HAI. Mrs. Fallingstar’s husband, a psychiatric nurse, was a trained healthcare professional and in a higher risk group since he worked within the healthcare system.

However, when he came down with a high fever and flu-like symptoms, his physician did not suspect HAI and did not rush his test results. According to Mrs. Fallingstar, the doctor kept urging her to wait it out and not go to the hospital, despite her continued calls to the his office and speaking with the doctor about her husband’s continued fever and worsening disorientation.

When she eventually took him in, his red blood count was too low and he died of a type of hemolytic strep, related to strep throat, that he contracted at work. The loss of a loved one to HAI happens in one out of one hundred cases. It is a high price for families and loved ones to pay.

#3. Educate Every Doctor, Educate Yourself
Mrs. Fallingstar urges you to help raise the visibility around HAI in the US. It is the only way we will really combat HAI across the nation because it calls for change beyond just yourself. What we need is:

  • Increase training about HAI for everyone in healthcare, from your primary doctors and nurses to the head of finance at insurance company who’s policies create incentives for doctors, hospitals and other healthcare businesses.
  • Educate the public and the families of healthcare workers about HAIs so that they can better advocate for themselves and their loved ones.
  • Avoid elective procedures that put you a risk of HAI.

“You have to realize that your doctor is no longer only looking out for your best interest,” says Mrs. Fallingstar, and she continues, “healthcare is run so much like a corporation now, when something goes wrong, everyone points the finger at everyone else and passes on the responsibility for their actions. I hope that the media helps to raise the awareness around HAI, so that more lives can be saved.”

Her points really hit home as you think about the devastating experience she has gone through. It makes me wonder if professional education program partnerships like the one organized by Kimberly-Clark, called HAI Watch, are going to have enough of an impact and why there isn’t more organized attention being given to those suffering though HAI. Both the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) see this as an area that needs attention, but what will it take for US mainstream media to raise the awareness and drive dramatic improvements around HAI? How can we get NBC, Fox, CNN and Oprah helping spread the word on the threat HAI now possess to the average American?

Raise Awareness and Action
Over the course of talking with people effected by HAI, many of the same themes kept coming up:

  • Healthcare professionals needed more training.
  • Healthcare staff did not follow procedures.
  • Doctors reluctant to order rush tests or encourage hospital admittance.
  • Avoid elective procedures. Why take the risk?
  • Having your own vocal advocate at your side and speaking up for you is critical.
  • Ask more questions and know more about healthcare facilities in your area.

Many of these topics seem like they should be already taken care of by healthcare companies, most of which are consistently turning a profit. However, are the programs being created to train people on HAI doing their job effectively? Why haven’t their been more stories in mainstream media about one of the top ten killers in America, HAI? Why aren’t infection rates proactively disclosed for those considering surgery or other procedures?

For now we leave you with more questions than answers but hope that the experience and advise shared will help protect the ones you love. Raise your voice and help us lower the cost of HAI through awareness, education and training.

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