Are dirty hospitals risking medical negligence claims?

Date: Nov 05, 2014

Sydney hospitals could find themselves facing medical negligence claims if they fail to clean up their act.

A Daily Telegraph investigation last month revealed that two-thirds of surfaces swabbed in 15 hospitals across the NSW capital failed to meet industry standards.

According to the newspaper, three of the tested areas contained "unhygienic levels" of staphylococcus – a bacterium that can cause a number of infections, some of which are extremely serious.

Staphylococcus usually exists harmlessly on most people's skin, but problems can arise if there are high levels of the bacteria present and they penetrate the skin through a cut or other wound.

Typically, the bug will only lead to minor boils or skin rashes, but if it gets into the bloodstream, patients could suffer septicaemia or an infection of the heart lining.

The Daily Telegraph swabbed the doors in ladies' toilets, as well as seats and chair handles in emergency waiting rooms.

Mt Druitt was identified as the dirtiest hospital among those tested. The toilet door was twice as unclean as acceptable standards, while one seat in the emergency waiting room had bacteria levels four times higher than guidelines suggest.

Medical negligence claims

If a patient develops a bug while in hospital for an unrelated complaint, they may be eligible to receive medical negligence compensation.

However, NSW Clinical Excellence Commission Chief Clifford Hughes claimed emergency waiting rooms are cleaned twice a day, while toilets are fully cleaned and disinfected twice, with a further two spot cleans.

Professor Hughes said the ATP luminometre used for testing can't tell the difference between harmful and non-harmful bacteria. The Daily Telegraph acknowledged this, but added that swab tests were completed to detect unhygienic levels of staph and E coli as a backup.

Greg Whiteley, a student in the process of completing a post-doctorate that involves ATP luminometres in hospitals, said the technology is new and reliable readings are a challenge.

"But if you have really high readings you will probably find a lot of bacteria," he added.

NSW Health Minister Jillian Skinner urged everyone in hospitals to contribute to maintaining a healthy and clean environment.

"I encourage all hospital staff, visitors and patients to use hand sanitisers located in our hospitals," she stated.

The three hospitals that showed elevated levels of staph were Westmead Children's Hospital, Campbelltown Hospital and Hornsby Hospital.

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