New research: Surgical center colonoscopy infection rate is 1,000 times greater than previously thought
Before having a colonoscopy, ask your doctor how the reusable equipment is cleaned
I recently read about a woman’s experience with a severe infection and sepsis after a routine colonoscopy.
The day after having this very common procedure, the woman thought she had caught a bad flu or urinary tract infection. The next day, she felt so bad that she could not get out of bed. By the third day, it felt like she had been beaten with a baseball bat. She described it as “what you imagine dying feels like.” Fortunately, she went to the emergency room (ER) that night. If she had waited another day, the doctor said, she would have died.
She was diagnosed with a smoldering E. coli infection that likely originated from contaminated, poorly-cleaned colonoscopy equipment.
As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice attorney, I have handled a lot of cases where patients went to a hospital or surgical center for a colonoscopy or other procedure and then developed terrible complications from unsanitary conditions.
Right now, I am representing clients in lawsuits in Houston and Austin who suffered from rare Mycobacterial infections after laparoscopic bariatric (weight loss) procedures. As part of our thorough investigation of these cases, we hired surgical and infectious diseases medical experts to review the care provided to our clients. They concluded that the infections were caused by poorly-cleaned reusable surgical equipment.
For colonoscopies and many laparoscopic surgeries, doctors use reusable scopes to be able to see—and sometimes operate—inside the body without performing an open procedure. A significant risk to patients occurs, though, when the reusable equipment is not properly cleaned and sanitized between patients.
Think about it. It is easy to see how complications like infections and sepsis occur when a previous patient’s blood and tissue are still within the cracks and crevices of reusable equipment when it is inserted inside the next patient’s body.
I have previously written about duodenoscopies, which are used to visualize and treat structures in the small intestines and nearby pancreatic and bile ducts. They are notorious culprits that have been associated with at least 25 deaths in the last five years. The challenge with duodenoscopes is their complexity—they have many moving parts that require time and careful attention to clean and sterilize.
Yet, less-complicated equipment like endoscopes and colonoscopes are used in more than 22 million annual colonoscopy and endoscopy procedures. When speaking with patients about these procedures, many physicians describe them as noninvasive—because they involve no incisions or cuts—and almost risk-free. Yet, recent research at three major hospitals found that 71% of reusable medical scopes stocked and designated ready for use on patients tested positive for bacteria.
Further, additional research, completed in 2018, shows that infection rates are much higher than the medical community previously thought. The infection rate for routine colonoscopies performed in an outpatient surgery center is about 1 in 1,000 patients, according to Johns Hopkins University. It was previously thought to be around 1 in 1 million—meaning 1,000 times better than the true risk to patient safety.
What you can do
When your doctor recommends a colonoscopy or laparoscopic procedure, ask if disposable or reusable equipment will be used. If any reusable equipment will be utilized, ask how it is cleaned and sterilized between patients.
I also recommend giving careful thought as to whether to have the procedure in a hospital versus a surgical center. Many physicians and surgeons like to use surgical centers because they make more money that way. Yet, in my experience, some surgical centers have higher infection and complication rates than hospitals and are not as well-equipped to handle emergencies.
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Robert Painter is a medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, physicians, surgeons, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. A member of the board of directors of the Houston Bar Association, he was honored, in 2017, by H Texas as one of Houston’s top lawyers. In May 2018, the Better Business Bureau recognized Painter Law Firm PLLC with its Award of Distinction.
Robert Painter is a medical malpractice lawyer at Painter Law Firm PLLC.
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Published in the July/August 2018 edition of "The Houston Lawyer" magazine