congressional committee investigating fatal outbreak at pittsburgh area hospital

Hospital negligence typically conjures up mental images of nurses forgetting to administer the proper medications, physicians failing to diagnose a serious medical condition or pharmacy staff providing the wrong dosage to a gravely ill patient. While this is certainly accurate, it’s also important to understand that a hospital acts negligently when it fails to provide patients with a safe environment, and this failure results in serious or even fatal injuries.

Consider a recent story right here in Pittsburgh, where the Veterans Affairs Hospital in Oakland is currently under investigation by federal officials following the outbreak of an extremely dangerous respiratory disease that has been linked to multiple patient fatalities.

Members of the U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs held a hearing just last week to explore the circumstances behind an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease at the facility, which is believed to have killed five veterans and infected multiple others.

For those unfamiliar with Legionnaires’ disease, it is defined by the Mayo Clinic as a very serious form of pneumonia caused not by person-to-person contact, but rather by the inhalation of the bacterium known as legionella. While legionella can be found in all types of water systems, Mayo experts indicate that it is most frequently found in the water dispersed through the ventilation systems of large buildings, which provide an ideal environment for it to grow and spread.

Interestingly, the Pittsburgh VA admitted back in November that five patients had indeed come down with Legionnaires’ disease during various stays, while two of its former employees — both infectious disease specialists — expressed their belief that the poor maintenance and management of the building’s water treatment center was behind the fatal outbreaks.

Pittsburgh VA officials claimed at last week’s congressional hearing, however, that the facility had used hyper-chlorination procedures to clean the water system in November and that a stringent testing procedure is now in place.

“[A] sampling of the water supply is done every two weeks and continues to demonstrate remediation efforts taken in November, and ongoing, have been successful,” read a released statement.

It remains to be seen what will come of the congressional investigation.

In the meantime, hospital officials need to understand that patient safety means more than just preventing medical mistakes. It also means providing patients with safe facilities in which they can rest and recover. Those hospitals that fail to perform this simple step and injure patients must be held accountable, whether in the halls of Congress or a court of law.

Sources: The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “CDC report cites 5 Legionnaires’ deaths in Pittsburgh region,” Sean Hamill, Feb. 5, 2013; The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “VA officials say veteran did not get Legionnaires’ disease from hospital,” Sean Hamill, Feb. 8, 2013

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