It is that kind of casual attitude to the potential for transfer of deadly hospital bacteria that McCaughey believes is responsible for untold thousands of deaths every year in American hospitals. McCaughey estimates that at least 103,000 people die every year, not from the disease that brought them to the hospital in the first place, but from notorious bacterial infections like methicillan resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) or Vancomycin Resistant Enterococci (VRE).
Unacceptable and Preventable
She believes these infections are not only unacceptable--they are also preventable. "One of the reasons that hospitals are so dangerous for patients is that hospitals are dirty, needlessly dirty," says Dr. McCaughey.
When she served as the Lieutenant Governor of New York State she was alarmed by the number of people who came to her office looking for help after someone in their family had been harmed by contracting an infection during a hospital stay.
"So many people came to me with the same story of hospital infections," says McCaughey. "I did some research on the size and the cost. And I was elated by the preventability of the problem." In 1999, when her term with the state of New York ended she established the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. It delivers research to hospitals and patients and provides the public with information on hospital infection rates.
Some of McCaughey's review of the literature is nothing short of amazing.
--A study of 49 New England hospitals found 25 percent of operating room surfaces were overlooked by cleaners.
--A study of 1100 rooms in 20 hospitals found that over the half the surfaces that were supposed to be cleaned when one patient leaves and another comes in were overlooked.
--Sixteen percent of doctors and healthcare workers say they change their lab coats less than once a week even though they know it carries germs from one patient to the next.
"Unfortunately hospitals have devoted few resources to cleaning. That's always the area of the hospital that gets cut first," says Dr. McCaughey. "But new research shows that the money spent increasing cleaning in the hospital wards and every area of the hospital pays off financially and saves lives."
Hospitals Can Reduce Infections
She points to another study done in Chicago aimed specifically at improved hygiene as a way to reduce hospital infections. "A new study done at Rush University Medical Centre in Chicago showed that working with cleaning personnel and making sure that that they don't overlook surfaces actually reduced the spread of VRE, a very dangerous superbug, by two--thirds," she says.
Lawsuits Have Already Started
Dr. McCaughey predicts that if hospitals don't clean up then the courts will do it for them. "[Historically] patients and their families were told that the infections were an inevitable risk you face in the hospital; when patients contracted an infection no one sued," says Dr. McCaughey. "But now the evidence is copious that these infections are almost always preventable through proper hygiene and procedures."
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As a defence, hospitals usually claim there is no way to tell how a patient got the infection. "The jury didn't care in this case, says Dr. McCaughey. "It is the hospital's obligation to screen patients who may bring in infections and take precautions to prevent bacteria from invading their bodies through an IV, an incision, a burn, a ventilator or whatever openings there may be in a patient's body during hospitalization."
Dr. Betsy McCaughey is the Chair of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths. She graduated from Vassar College (1970) and earned her Masters and Ph.d in Constitutional History at Columbia University. She was a fierce critic of former President Bill Clinton`s Healthcare plan.