Last year, dozens of women who had been treated at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas opened their mail and found a letter that read, "We would like to let you know that you may have been exposed to a speculum that may not have been properly sterilized." Two days later, another letter informed them "there is one additional piece of information that we need to tell you": they should abstain from sex or use condoms to prevent infecting their partner. Then a third letter told another group of women that instruments used during their baby's delivery may not have been cleaned properly.
This disgusting information about Parkland only came to light after an investigation by the Dallas Morning News (which is behind a paywall, but the AP has picked up much of the story). The letters, which first went out in March, were obtained by the paper through the Texas Public Information Act, and the hospital is suing the Texas Attorney General to block his request for other documents on its failure to sterilize instruments.
The 73 women who may have been treated with dirty tools were asked to come back to the hospital for testing and possible treatment. Others were instructed to bring their babies in to be examined. The hospital says there were "no medical complications for women who chose follow up care," so all's well that ends well, right? (One woman had inconclusive test results and never came back for a followup, but let's just assume she and her sex partners haven't contracted anything.)
This would already be a nightmare scenario if the health violations had only taken place in the OB/GYN ward, but a separate federal investigation prompted by a death in the hospital's psychiatric emergency department in February found widespread hygiene problems throughout the facility. The problems, which included hospital staff not washing their hands and mishandling infectious waste, were so severe that in the past few weeks the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services threatened to cut millions in federal funding.
Parkland officials say the obstetrics and gynecology problems were related to instruments being picked up from the processing area before they were cleaned. In the labor and delivery ward, an equipment failure made it impossible to tell if items had been fully sterilized, so patients were contacted about "possible exposure and the extremely low risk of contracting HIV or Hepatitis."
According to the hospital, changes will involve education, stepped up monitoring of staff and regular review.
Specifically each patient entering the ER will be screened by a qualified medical provider instead of a technician. Also, each patient will be accompanied to the appropriate area once registered because the hospital has six different emergency treatment areas.
Also, staff will be strictly monitored in terms of hygiene procedures to reduce cross contamination. And no food or drinks will be allowed in patient care areas.
The government is scheduled to do a follow-up inspection at the end of the month, but it's hard to believe that the hospital can take care of these revolting practices in a matter of days. Particularly, because these aren't new problems. In 2008, an internal report found that the hospital's wound infection rate was worse than expected in several surgical categories, including abdominal hysterectomy and vaginal hysterectomy. Hospital officials put together another "action plan" that involved better maintenance of instruments and clearer instructions on hand washing, yet a few years later it was informing patients that they might have contracted a disease from dirty instruments.
Image via Patricia Hofmeester/Shutterstock.