In a series titled “Death by Complication,” the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting and The Sacramento Bee teamed up to investigate hospital-acquired infections in the state as well as efforts to combat them.
In the centerpiece, the CHCF’s Deborah Schoch used records and privacy waivers granted by a cooperative family to explore how an apparent hospital-acquired C. difficile infection seems to have killed an otherwise healthy 75-year-old man who was originally hospitalized for a broken femur. The cause of death was listed as “complications.” His story was far from unique, Schoch writes.
One in 20 hospital patients get infections. In California, roughly 200,000 people get hospital infections annually, and 12,000 of them die, according to state Department of Public Health statistics. That makes such infections one of the state’s leading causes of death, ahead of automobile accidents and Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet these deaths have remained mostly in the shadows. They often are classified as “deaths from complications,” an oblique term used in obituaries and often unquestioned by relatives and friends.
Even the best doctors can be baffled whether an infection was acquired before or after a patient was admitted, and if it was the principal cause of death or no factor at all.
Many health care providers historically have viewed hospital infections – going by obscure names or acronyms such as C.diff, CLABSI, VRE and the more familiar MRSA – as a sometimes inevitable consequence of being hospitalized.
In related pieces, reporters find that while hospitals are waking up to the toll taken by hospital-acquired infections, neither they nor the state have really managed to take authoritative measures to address the problem.