“The cardiac surgeon had unknowingly spread a staph infection from the rash on his hand to the hearts of at least five patients by the time Los Angeles County health investigators learned of the outbreak.
“The doctor had operated on more than 60 others in recent months, and county officials feared those patients could be struck with the same dangerous infection.”
So reported the Los Angeles Times last week in yet another horror story about hospital acquired infections (HAIs)
The problem isn’t just that hospitals are fertile places for the spread of infection; the problem is the secrecy that surrounds their common occurrence. In the case of the surgeon mentioned above, the first public airing occurred a year later in an appendix to a 350-page health department annual report, which tied the incident to “Hospital A.” The name of that hospital remained unknown to consumers, and to other medical providers, until months later when it acknowledged its role to a reporter.
As The Times reported, “L.A. County health officials investigate and confirm an infection outbreak inside one of the county’s hospitals once or twice a month. The public rarely finds out which hospital is involved, how many patients were stricken or whether any died.”
And it’s not a local issue: keeping outbreak information quiet is common among federal and state health investigators, who rationalize such confidentiality by saying it encourages hospitals to disclose outbreaks quickly so they can be addressed.
But what about a consumer’s right to know? What about other facilities that could learn from someone else’s mistakes if they were aware of what, exactly, had happened, where and why? Just which master is being served here, and is it the one that should be?
And why, given the move toward greater transparency in health care and federal reimbursements based increasingly on outcomes, is such secrecy tolerated, indeed, encouraged?