Healthcare’s Dirty Little Secret

Having a medical procedure should be safer than getting a tattoo.
My home state of New Hampshire was recently rocked by the news that 31 patients at a NH hospital had been infected with hepatitis while undergoing cardiac catheterization, an invasive procedure used to identify heart disease and defects. Specifically, they tested positive for Hepatitis C, a viral infection transmitted through blood that results in liver inflammation and can result in ongoing health issues. The threat of hepatitis transmission is used to discourage people from getting a tattoo or using intravenous drugs.  It’s not something that’s expected as a result of a hospital procedure. 
When I first heard this, I theorized the problem was due to inadequately sterilized equipment.   It’s no secret to those in healthcare that many invasive medical instruments are re-used and cleaned between patients.  Improper instrument cleaning was blamed in March 2009 when the Veterans Affair department confirmed that ten patients tested positive for hepatitis following colonoscopies. Even supposedly sterile, one-time use equipment has been implicated in disease transmission in the healthcare setting.  Infections from the use of urinary catheters, central lines, and mechanical ventilators occur with enough frequency that healthcare facilities enact policies and procedures designed to lessen the risk. In New Hampshire, hospitals self-report and post data on health care associated infections.  Yes, being the recipient of health care is a dangerous business. 
Though improper cleaning can be attributed to the pace of healthcare (decreased numbers of staff with less training and an increased workload) or financial constraints (doing things right costs money, doing them quickly, not so much), the cause of the Exeter Hospital hepatitis outbreak isn’t substandard cleaning,  rather it’s drug diversion. The theory being that a healthcare worker with an addiction to narcotics took the opportunity presented by multiuse vials and/or medication syringes that are filled but not given immediately, to inject a little for him or herself.  In the process, the infectged addict spread the hepatitis virus and now 31 people have a chronic liver disease.  This shouldn’t come as a huge surprise to anyone.  It’s not as if spreading disease through reused syringes and supplies is new. 
In 2009 at Rose Medical Center in Colorado at least 18 people contracted hepatitis when a drug addicted scrub tech switched out her used saline-filled syringes with drug-filled ones prepared for surgical patients.  An outpatient clinic radiology tech in Florida infected five patients while diverting fentanyl (a potent narcotic) for his/her own use.  Like any other crime, the ones who get caught are only the tip of the iceberg.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) report from 2008-2011 ( attributes outbreaks of hepatitis at outpatient clinics to the use of contaminated syringes to re- enter single use and multi-dose vials, the use of single use vials for multiple patients, and drug diversion by healthcare workers infected with hepatitis.  Obviously in today’s healthcare environment the patient can’t depend on their healthcare worker doing the right thing (follow strict infection practices) or the facility doing the right thing (random drug testing, especially of hospital staff that handle medications in areas known to be associated with diversion).  Seems like the concept of do no harm doesn’t apply to hepatitis prevention. 
If the victims of Exeter Hospital went to the CDC FAQ on Hepatitis C they’d see their risk factor for contracting hepatitis as “sharing needles, syringes, or other equipment to inject drugs.”  Unfortunately, the victims didn’t make the choice to share, the healthcare worker did. The site also cautions: “A few major research studies have not shown Hepatitis C to be spread through licensed, commercial tattooing facilities. However, transmission of Hepatitis C (and other infectious diseases) is possible when poor infection-control practices are used during tattooing or piercing.”   
Perhaps it’s time to add “transmission of Hepatitis C (and other infectious disease) is possible when poor infection-control and drug control practices are used in hospitals and other healthcare settings.” 
Until healthcare deals with this dirty little problem, it may be safer to get a tattoo than a medical procedure.