Surgical tools that are not properly sanitized can put the patient at risk of serious infection, injury, or death. The hospital and the doctor have a responsibility to make sure that surgical instruments are properly sanitized. A surgical patient is usually under anesthesia during surgery and not able to observe what surgical tools are used and may only find out that there was a sterilization problem after the fact. If your doctor did not properly sterilize the surgical tools and caused an infection, you may have a medical malpractice claim for damages.
The Importance of Sterilizing Surgical Instruments
Surgical procedures on TV seem so meticulous and calculated. In a perfectly sterile environment, the patient is treated by top-notch surgeons with laser precision. Asking for a scalpel, scissors, or sutures brings a sterile tool to provide the patient with the best treatment. Unfortunately, some patients are given less than the best.
When surgical tools are not properly sanitized, they can introduce infections into the patient’s body. The body is a sealed container and able to fight off most viral, bacterial, or fungal attackers from the outside. However, when the body is opened up during surgery or after an accident, it is much more susceptible to attacks caused by infections.
This is why it is so important for surgical tools to be properly cleaned and disinfected before they are used in surgery. Even a little bit of bacteria on the scalpel, clamp, or needle is enough to introduce a dangerous infection into the patient’s body. Unfortunately, it can take days or weeks before the injury is discovered. By then, the patient may have already suffered injury or harm caused by the infection.
Types of Surgical Instruments Requiring Sterilization
Doctors, surgeons, and hospitals use a number of surgical instruments during surgical procedures. Many of the instruments and tools used are intended to be disposable, as one-time-use items. Other surgical tools are reused and require proper cleaning and sterilization after use.
The most important tools that need to be sterilized are sometimes referred to as critical objects, which are those that come into direct contact with sterile tissue. Some common surgical instruments include:
- Suction tips
- Laparoscopic tools
How Are Surgical Tools Cleaned?
Hospitals, surgical clinics, and medical offices are supposed to have strict procedures in place to clean and sanitize surgical tools before they are used on another patient. Unfortunately, if a healthcare worker fails to follow the rules or a doctor does not check for sterility, it can introduce a harmful infection to an unsuspecting patient.
Medical equipment should be cleaned, disinfected, and sterilized before use. There are several ways to sanitize medical equipment, including:
- Steam sterilization
- Dry heat sterilization
- Chemical sterilization
- Plasma gas sterilization
- Vaporized hydrogen peroxide sterilizers
One of the most common sterilization devices is the autoclave, which uses steam sterilization. Steam is generally considered safe and effective for destroying bacteria, fungus, and viruses on metal surgical devices. The autoclave uses pressure and high heat to kill any microorganisms. To properly sterilize tools, the tools should have enough space between them to allow for steam contact.
Hospital Acquired Infections
It may seem like washing hands, cleaning tools, and sterilizing medical instruments is common sense. However, sterilization was not always so easily understood, even in the medical community. Hippocrates, the father of medicine, understood that it was important to keep wounds clean and free from infection, using boiling water to disinfect wound treatment materials.
After a couple of thousand years, germ theory finally started to take hold, with Louis Pasteur’s scientific experimentation into bacteria. Pasteur’s work would eventually lead to the pasteurization of milk, allowing milk to be stored and shipped around the world. In 1865, Joseph Lister, a surgeon in Scotland, put antiseptic barriers to use during surgery, dramatically reducing the instances of infection and death.
It took until the 19th century before doctors and medical professionals began to understand how important it was to keep hands, hospitals, and surgical instruments sterilized for the health and welfare of the patients. Unfortunately, even after the scientific advancements, sterilization is still a major concern in hospitals and surgical clinics in the United States and around the world.
Infection and Medical Malpractice
A hospital-acquired infection (HAI) is also known as a secondary infection or a nosocomial infection. Medical patients may come into a hospital, surgical center, or clinic for a procedure and end up leaving with an unrelated infection. While in the hospital, patients are exposed to the illnesses and infections of hundreds of other patients, doctors, and visitors. This exposure can lead to serious infection, even when the patient is at their most vulnerable. Some of the most common infections you can get in a hospital include:
- Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MSRA)
- Staphylococcus (staph infections)
- Urinary tract infections (UTI)
- Yeast infections
- Ventilator-associated pneumonia
- Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus
- Clostridium difficile (C. diff)
- E. coli
- Puerperal fever
- Stenotrophomonas maltophilia
- Acinetobacter baumannii
Complications of Contamination From Unsterilized Tools
An infection can lead to serious injury. Some minor infections can be fought off by the body’s natural immune system. Other infections may require medication and antibiotics. Infections can be more difficult to fight off for people with compromised immune systems, the elderly, or infants. Even with antibiotic treatments, some infections may require more aggressive treatment.
Infection can lead to distributive shock, where there is an abnormal distribution of the blood supply to the smallest blood vessels. Without adequate blood supply to the major organs and body tissues, the body can go into shock. Shock caused by infection can lead to ischemia (restriction in blood supply to tissues), organ dysfunction, organ failure, and death.
How does the patient know they have been infected during a negligent surgical procedure? The signs of an infection can look like other types of diseases or health conditions, including a cold or flu. Symptoms that the body is dealing with a serious infection can include:
- Low blood pressure
- Vomiting or diarrhea
- Muscle aches
- Altered mental status
- Loss of consciousness
A doctor can diagnose an infection or infection shock with blood tests, urine tests, or tissue samples. Chemical tests can show the positive presence of bacteria in the body. Imaging scans can also help identify the location of the infection. After a surgical procedure with unsterilized tools, the location of the infection would generally be near the surgical site. Unfortunately, the patient’s infection may be inside their body after the wounds were sutured or stitched up.
Treatment for a surgical infection can involve antibiotics, antiviral drugs, antifungal medication, or anti-parasitics, depending on the cause of the infection. The patient may have to be treated with a combination of medications to see which drugs are effective in addressing the infection. If drugs do not clear up the infection, the patient may have to undergo surgery to remove the infected tissue.
When an infection does not respond to antibiotics and continues to cause harm, the patient may have to have a surgical procedure to remove the source of the infection. This could involve removal of a significant amount of bodily tissue, including amputation. Amputation is a traumatic medical treatment that permanently removes a limb or body part.
The most common amputation injuries involve arm amputation or leg amputation but amputation can also involve the ears, nose, tongues, breasts, or testicles. Even after amputation, health care providers still need to take serious precautions to prevent further infection of the body and monitor the patient for continued signs of infection.
Amputation can be caused by negligent medical care that leads to an uncontrolled infection, requiring amputation to save the patient’s life. As the result of a serious surgical infection, the patient can suffer:
- Permanent organ damage
- Chronic pain
Chicago Sterilization Infections
It only takes one mistake to lead to a surgical infection. However, infections caused by dirty instruments often occur after a series of complaints, mistakes, and close calls. Some hospital workers or doctors complain for years about problems with hospital procedures, unsanitized medical instruments, and missing tools.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), surgical site infections (SSIs) occur about 290,000 times per year. These SSIs account for up to $8 billion in costs and may be responsible for almost 13,000 deaths. Unfortunately, a lot of these SSIs are preventable but were caused by negligence or medical malpractice.
In a publication from the University of Illinois, “Using sterile technique when preparing, performing, or assisting with operative and other invasive procedures is essential to keeping an environment safe and preventing health care-associated infections in patients and health care workers.”
Some SSIs also occur when a surgical tool is used in the abdomen area and the bowels or perineal area. The bowels and perineum have a higher number of microorganisms compared to the abdomen. When surgery involves the perineum, bowel surgery, and other surgical areas, instruments should be segregated to reduce the risk of cross-contamination.
Who Is Responsible for Infection Accidents?
Before introducing any surgical tool, the item should be inspected to make sure it is properly processed and packaged. When a properly packaged tool has been inspected, a scrubbed team member should open the package and place the item on a sterile field.
The sterile field where sterile objects are placed should be monitored and never left unattended. If the surgical procedure is delayed, the sterile field should be covered with a sterile drape to reduce the risk of airborne contamination.
Everyone involved in handling, using, or cleaning surgical tools has some responsibility to make sure the procedures are followed and the patient is not subject to dirty tools. This is why there are specific procedures and rules for handling surgical tools. Health care workers who have a responsibility to make sure tools are sterilized may include:
- General surgeons
- Physician’s assistants
- Perioperative personnel
- Cleaning staff
- Hospital administrators
The last line of responsibility generally lies with the surgeon or surgical staff. Doctors and surgeons owe a duty of care to their patients to follow the medical standards of a reasonable doctor, which includes sterile techniques to reduce the risk of infection.
Hospital Liability for Employee Errors
The hospital may be liable for the negligence of a hospital employee. For example, if a hospital cleaning employee mixed up some important surgical tools and a patient was later injured because of the infection, the injury victim may not expect to be able to recover compensation from an employee without a lot of money. However, under vicarious liability, an employer can be held liable for the negligence of an employee when the employee is acting within the scope of employment.
After an infection injury, the hospital may be held responsible for the medical damages because the employer is generally in a better financial position to cover the costs of the injury caused by an employee. Even if the hospital did not directly cause the infection, the hospital can be liable for the negligence of nurses and other hospital employees.
Is My Doctor Responsible?
Your doctor may also be responsible for the SSI injuries. The doctor may not be an employee of the hospital but could still be named individually in a medical malpractice lawsuit as a defendant. To prove the doctor was responsible, the injury victim generally needs to show:
- There was a doctor-patient relationship and the doctor owed the patient a duty of care;
- The doctor deviated from the standard of care;
- The deviation caused the patient’s injury; and
- The patient suffered harm or damage as a result.
Philadelphia Hospital Infections
Medical malpractice attorneys in Philadelphia have helped families who have been devastated by surgical site infections. An infection can cause severe injury, disfigurement, disability, amputation, and death. Many of these infections are avoidable with proper sterilization techniques and doctors properly monitoring sterilization procedures during surgery. If you have any questions about an injury caused by the doctor failing to sterilize surgical tools, reach out for help.
Baltimore Infection Malpractice
In a medical malpractice claim caused by a surgical infection, the injury victim may be able to recover compensation for their losses. Damages in a medical malpractice claim can include:
- Medical bills
- Future medical care
- Lost income
- Loss of income opportunities
- Pain and suffering
Some patients just deal with an infection injury because they think it was unavoidable. However, filing a medical malpractice lawsuit can do more than just help you recover financially. A successful malpractice claim may cause the hospital and doctors to take measures to make sure it doesn’t happen again, improving care for everyone. Contact Baltimore medical malpractice lawyers for legal advice about your options after a surgical site infection injury in Maryland.
Can a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Help?
An experienced medical malpractice attorney can review your injury claim, have a medical expert review your medical file, and help you understand your legal options to file a claim against the hospital and other caregivers. Contact experienced personal injury trial attorneys who have successfully represented medical error victims and their families to recover financial compensation. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.