By Dr. Mercola
According to the 2011 Health Grades Hospital Quality in America Study,1 the incidence of medical harm occurring in the United States is estimated to be over 40,000 harmful and/or lethal errors each and every day.
Hospitals have become particularly notorious for spreading lethal infections. According to the most recent report2, 3 by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), hospital-acquired infections now affect one in 25 patients.
In 2011, an estimated 722,000 patients contracted an infection during a stay in an acute care hospital in the US, and about 75,000 of them died as a result of it.
That amounts to just over 205 deaths from hospital-acquired infections every day of the year! More than half of all hospital-acquired infections were contracted outside of the intensive care unit. The most common hospital-acquired infections include:
- Central line-associated bloodstream infections
- Catheter-associated urinary tract infections
- Surgical site infections after surgery
- Clostridium difficile infections
Other infectious diseases can also easily spread in medical settings, where those who are actively ill mingle with others who have compromised immune systems. For example, in early February, a measles outbreak suddenly cropped up in the northern Manhattan area of New York City.
A New York epidemiologist blames the outbreak on medical workers’ failure to control the contagion within their facilities. According to a recent New York Times4report:
“Dr. Jay Varma, the health department’s deputy commissioner for disease control, said the department’s investigators were looking at whether some of the 20 confirmed cases, which are concentrated in northern Manhattan, might have resulted from exposure in medical facilities.
Measles is one of the most contagious diseases and can be spread through airborne respiratory droplets even two hours after an infected person has left the room.
‘We know a number of people were exposed and possibly got their infection either at a doctor’s office or at an emergency room where they went and it took more time than it should have for them to be put in an isolation area where they couldn’t possibly infect anyone else,’ Dr. Varma said.”
Low-Rated Hospitals Place Patients at Even Greater Risk
While rates of hospital-acquired infections appear to have declined—estimates from the 1970s through the 1990s hovered around two million each year, with an estimated 100,000 annual deaths—the idea that you have “only” a one in 25 chance of ending up with a potentially lethal infection any time you enter a hospital is certainly not a cause for celebration… As reported by Reuters:5
“‘The trend, in magnitude, seems to be going in the right direction,’ Dr. Mike Bell, deputy director of the Division of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC, told Reuters Health. Despite continuing concern about hospital-acquired infections, especially ones that are resistant to antibiotics, the US does not have a national system for collecting information on the problem.”
It’s also important to realize that some hospitals are far riskier than others, and larger patient samples tend to reveal a greater magnitude of a problem. The featured CDC study analyzed just over 11,280 patient records from 183 hospitals in 10 states. (It’s also worth noting that nursing homes, emergency departments, rehabilitation hospitals, and outpatient treatment centers were excluded.)
Meanwhile, HealthGrades, which provides quality ratings on nearly 5,000 American hospitals, analyzed approximately 40 million Medicare patients’ records from 2007 through 2009 for its 2011 report,6 which found that one in nine patients developed a hospital-acquired infection!
According to this report, more than 164,470 inhospital complications could potentially have been avoided had all Medicare recipients from 2008 through 2010 gone to top rated hospitals for their procedures. On the average, you have a 54 percent lower risk of dying in a five-star rated hospital compared to the national average.
Clearly, it’s quite possible to prevent a large portion of inhospital infections. Simple things like doctors and nurses washing their hands between each patient, for example, can go a long way toward controlling the spread of potentially lethal infections.
Another factor that can influence your relative safety risk is when you go into the hospital. As a general rule, avoid elective surgeries and procedures during the month of July because this is when brand new residents begin their training. According to a 2010 report in the Journal of General Internal Medicine,7 lethal medication errors consistently spike by about 10 percent each July, particularly in teaching hospitals, due to the inexperience of new residents. Also be cautious of weekends.
The Age of Antibiotics Is Coming to an End
Believing an antibiotic will cure your illness is taken for granted by most people nowadays, but that is rapidly changing, as evidenced by current statistics. Antibiotic overuse and inappropriate use bear a heavy responsibility for creating the superbug crisis we are facing today.
The pervasive misuse of antibiotics by the agriculture industry also plays a very significant role. Agriculture accounts for about 80 percent of all antibiotics used in the US. Tens of millions of pounds of antibiotics are administered to American livestock each year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster. The antibiotic residues in meat and dairy, as well as the resistant bacteria, are then passed on to you in the foods you eat. As just one example, no less than 80 different antibiotics are allowed in cows’ milk.
The CDC has previously concluded that as much as 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food. According to a landmark “Antibiotic Resistance Threat Report” published by the CDC8 last year, a staggering two million American adults and children become infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria each year, and at least 23,000 of them die as a direct result of those infections. Unfortunately, hospital settings are undoubtedly among the most dangerous of places when it comes to contracting an antibiotic-resistant infection.
According to the Infectious Disease Society of America (IDSA), just one organism—methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, better known as MRSA—kills more Americans each year than the combined total of emphysema, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson’s disease, and homicide.9 The real death toll could be much higher, however, because as mentioned earlier, no one is tracking the full extent of antibiotic-resistant infections in the US. Fortunately, there are some effective non-toxic therapies, like honey, that work for topical MRSA infections.
The 18 Most-Dangerous Pathogens
In the CDC’s report Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013, the following 18 superbugs are identified as “urgent, serious and concerning threats” to humankind.10 The majority of these dangerous bacteria are in the Gram-negative category, because that variety has body armor that makes it extremely resistant to the immune response. Most disturbing of all, some forms are now exhibiting “panresistance”—meaning, resistance to absolutely every antibiotic in existence!
|Carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE): A family of Gram-negative bacteria that are prominent in your gut growing increasingly resistant to nearly all types of antibiotics|
|Drug-resistant Neisseria gonorrhoeae: The sexually transmitted disease gonorrhea is becoming increasingly resistant to the last type of antibiotics left to treat it, having already become resistant to less potent antibiotics. Strains of the disease that are resistant to the class of antibiotic drugs called cephalosporins have appeared in several countries.|
|Multidrug-resistant Acinetobacter: Appeared in the US after Iraq and Afghanistan war vets returned home. Tough enough to survive even on dry surfaces like dust particles, making it easy to pass from host to host, especially in hospital environments|
|Drug-resistant Campylobacter: Campylobacter is the fourth leading cause of foodborne illness in the US. Campylobacter bacteria are unique in that they secrete an exotoxin that is similar to cholera toxin.|
|Fluconazole-resistant Candida (a fungus)|
|Extended spectrum beta-lactamase producingEnterobacteriaceae (ESBLs): ESBLs are enzymes produced by certain types of bacteria, which renders the bacteria resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them. ESBL-producing E. coli, for example, are resistant to penicillins and cephalosporins, and are becoming more frequent in urinary tract infections|
|Vancomycin-resistant Enterococcus (VRE): Increasingly common in hospital settings|
|Multidrug-resistant Pseudomonas aeruginosa: Linked to serious bloodstream infections and surgical wounds, and can lead to pneumonia and other complications; some are resistant to nearly every family of antibiotic|
|Drug-resistant Non-typhoidal Salmonella and Salmonella Typhi|
|Drug-resistant Shigella: An infectious disease, typically with diarrhea, caused by Shigella bacteria|
|Clostridium Difficile (C. Diff): Can live in the gut without causing symptoms, but attacks when your immune system is weakened; C. Diff is on the rise—infections increased by 400 percent between 2000 and 2007—and is becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant (This is the infection that fecal transplants are typically used for. It has a greater than 90 percent cure rate for this infection.)|
|Methicillin-resistant and Vancomycin-resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA and VRSA): Gram-positive bacteria infecting about 80,000 people each year, and can lead to sepsis and death. Increasing in communities, although decreasing in hospitals over the past decade; recent evidence points to factory-scale hog CAFOs as a primary source; MRSA is also a significant risk for your pets|
|Drug-resistant Streptococcus pneumoniae: A leading cause of pneumonia, bacteremia, sinusitis, and acute otitis media|
|Drug-resistant tuberculosis: Extensively resistant TB (XDR TB) has a 40 percent mortality rate and is on the rise worldwide; tuberculosis is one of the most infectious diseases because it’s so easily spread through the air when infected people cough or sneeze|
|Erythromycin-resistant Group A and Clindamycin-resistant Group B Streptococcus|
Hospitals Can Be Hazardous to Your Health in Multiple Ways
From my perspective, checking yourself into a hospital should be an option of last resort, when you have exhausted all others (barring an actual life-threatening emergency). Not only do you risk developing a potentially life-threatening infection, but they also all-too-frequently give you the wrong solution for your problem. Surgery, for example, is a widely overused option that can cause far more problems than it solves. One of the reasons I’m so passionate about sharing the information on this site about healthy eating, exercise, and stress management is because it can help keep you OUT of the hospital. But, if a hospital stay isnecessary, you would do well to heed the advice of Dr. Andrew Saul, co-author of the book Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter Hospital Stay.11 He suggests making sure you bring a personal advocate with you—a relative or friend who can speak up for you and ensure you’re given proper care if you too incapacitated to do so yourself.
Knowing How to Play the ‘Hospital Game’ Could Save Your Life
Knowing how to prevent disease so you can avoid hospitals in the first place is clearly your best bet. But knowing what to do to make your hospital stay as safe and healing as possible is equally important. As Dr. Saul explains:
“[People] need to understand that when they are faced with hospitalization, the most powerful person in the most entire hospital system is the patient. The system works on the assumption that the patient will not claim that power…A patient can say, ‘No. Do not touch me.’ And they can’t. If they do, it’s assault, and you can call the police. Now, they might say, ‘Well, on your way in, you signed this form.’ You can revoke your permission. Just because somebody has permission to do one thing, it doesn’t mean that they have the permission to do everything. There’s no such thing as a situation that you cannot reverse… You don’t want to cry wolf for no reason, but the patient has the potential to put a stop to absolutely anything. If the patient doesn’t know that, if they’re not conscious, or if they just don’t have the moxie to do it, the next most powerful person is the spouse… If there is no spouse present, the next most powerful people in the system are the children of the patient…
You’ll notice that I haven’t noticed doctors or hospital administrators once. That’s because they don’t have the power. They really don’t. They just want you to think that you do. It is an illusion that they run the place. The answer is – you do. They’re offering you products and services, and they’re trying to get you to accept them without question.
…[W]hen you go to the hospital, bring along a black Sharpie pen, and cross out anything that you don’t like in the contract. Put big giant X’s through entire clauses and pages, and do not sign it. And when they say, ‘We’re not going to admit you,’ you say, ‘Please put it in writing that you refuse to admit me.’ What do you think your lawyers are going to do with that? They have to [admit you]. They absolutely have to… It’s a game, and you can win it. But you can’t win it if you don’t know the rules. And basically, they don’t tell you the rules. In [the book] Hospitals and Health, we do.”
Visions of a Post-Antibiotic Apocalypse
Medicine has very few options when the antibiotic pipeline completely dries up, and when that happens, common illnesses such as bronchitis or strep throat may turn into deadly sepsis. Surgeries previously considered low risk or “routine,” such as hip replacements, might suddenly be too risky without antibiotics. And complex surgeries like organ transplants would essentially not be survivable.
Again, while there appears to be few options, I would stress the importance of prevention, prevention, prevention. And that includes avoiding unnecessary hospital visits. The basic key to keeping your immune system healthy is making good lifestyle choices such as proper diet, stress management, and exercise. Remember, opt for clean, whole foods (animal and plant based), organically raised without antibiotics and preferably locally sourced. By taking control of your own health and building a strong immune system, you’ll minimize your risk of acquiring an antibiotic-resistant infection, or becoming hospital-bound due to severe illness.
Sources and References
- 1 HealthGrades 2011 Healthcare Consumerism and Hospital Quality in America Report
- 2 CDC.gov Health Care Associated Infections
- 3 New England Journal of Medicine 2014;370:1198-208
- 4 New York Times March 18, 2014
- 5 Reuters March 26, 2014
- 6 HealthGrades 2011 Healthcare Consumerism and Hospital Quality in America Report
- 7 A July Effect in Fatal Medication Errors: A Possible Effect of New Medical Residents,” Journal of General Internal Medicine, August 2010: 25(8); 774-7
- 8 CDC Threat Report 2013 Summary
- 9 Forbes May 7, 2013
- 10 CDC Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the US, 2013
- 11 Hospitals and Health: Your Orthomolecular Guide to a Shorter, Safer Hospital Stay