Recently, Ring of Fire brought you a story about the 3M Bair Hugger Blanket – a device intended to maintain a patient’s body temperature during surgery that has been shown to increase the risk of infection, especially hip and knee infections. Physician and inventor Dr. Scott Augustine has been trying to get the Bair Hugger pulled off the market, but 3M subsidiary Arizant, which owns the patent and design, has been fighting him at every turn. These devices are used primarily for patients undergoing orthopedic implant surgery – and 10,000 of these patients wind up with infections every year. However, Bair Hugger-related infections represent only the proverbial tip of the iceberg.

Current figures show that about 1 out of every 25 hospital patients contract serious health care-associated infections (HAIs) every year. Approximately 75,000 patients die as a result. While the corporate mainstream media whips up public hysteria over ebola, the real culprits are far more common – but equally deadly. Unfortunately, because of the overuse of antibiotics by health care providers as well as patients, these bacteria have evolved into “superbugs,” and are increasingly resistant to antibiotic medications.

It turns out that over 30% of patients are given “broad spectrum antibiotics” at least once during their stay. These antibiotics are quite powerful and are used to treat a number of different bacterial infections. However, because of their “shotgun” approach, such broad spectrum antibiotics wind up killing off the beneficial bacteria residing in the lower gastrointestinal tract – further compromising patient health.

At the same time, the pharmaceutical industry has been backing away from the development of new antibiotics because of “poor profit margins.” According to Steve Gilman, who was Chief Scientific Officer at Cubist Pharmaceuticals (now part of Merck & Company), the rate of bacterial resistance was between 10 and 15 percent in the 1990s. Today, it is at 60 percent.

In 2013, Dr. Michael Barnett and Dr. Jeffery Linder presented studies on the overuse of antibiotics, including the associated financial costs. For example, since the turn of the century, antibiotics have been prescribed for 60% of patients suffering sore throat and 73% of those with bronchitis. In the case of the former, relatively few patients actually had strep throat – the only indication for antibiotic medication. Not surprisingly, use of the old, inexpensive standby, penicillin, accounted for less than 10% of prescriptions – while prescriptions of azithromycin, a more expensive drug, have been on the rise.  According to Barnett and Linder, the overuse and misuse of antibiotics is costing about $500 million a year – and this figure does not account for problems caused by side effects.

Part of the responsibility lies with patients. Many people demand antibiotics because they believe such medications will relieve their symptoms. However, physicians are also at fault; the practice has been going on for so long and is so widespread that they don’t often consider the alternatives.

It is important for hospital patients to discuss the use of antibiotics with their physicians. These medications can be useful, but only if they are properly prescribed and administered. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), half of all prescriptions for antibiotics are unnecessary or inappropriate for the patient’s condition. One alternative may be the use of “pro-biotics” that encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria such as lactobacillus bulgaricus and streptococcus thermophilus. These are available in prescription form, but are also found in yogurt and sour cream containing “live and active cultures.” These may help to inhibit harmful bacteria such as clostridium difficile and staphylococcus aureus.

You can learn more about antibiotics and hospital infections in your state by visiting SafePatientProject.org.

 

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.