When he entered the hospital in February 2004, Mark Bennett was a vibrant 88-year-old with little more than a bad cough. Within a few days, his leg had swelled and become discolored. Within four months, he was dead.
It turns out that hospital personnel had passed on at least six different bacterial infections, inducing drug-resistant strains, to Bennett, according to his son, Michael Bennett.
"This was passed to him through negligence, and he died because of it," Bennett said. "He was gentle, yet strong, just a great human being."
Each year, more than 2 million people in the United States acquire an infection during a hospital stay, and an estimated 90,000 people die from them -- more than from AIDS, breast cancer and auto accidents combined.
"If 110 people were dying daily from the bird flu, I think we'd be calling this an epidemic," said Marc Volavaka of the Pennsylvania Health Cost Containment Council.
The danger is growing worse because many hospital-acquired infections can no longer be treated with traditional antibiotics. Experts, however, say these infections are almost always preventable.
"Infections are spread on the hands and gloves of health-care workers, on their labs and uniforms, on stethoscopes and blood pressure cuffs and bedrails," said Betsy McCaughey of the Committee to Reduce Infections.
Drs. Mehmet Oz and Michael Roizen, authors of "YOU: The Smart Patient," said that patients can protect themselves by heeding the following advice:
Aggressively insist on clean hands. The rule is that everyone -- doctors, nurses, orderlies -- must wash their hands between each patient. If you don't see them do it, ask them to. Also, make sure your visitors wash their hands and have hand sanitizer available for them to use.
Not all hospitals are accredited, and often the hospitals that are the only game in town, don't bother with it. Hospitals that are accredited must pass an exam on cleanliness and infection control as well as on patient rights and treatment. Hospitals are cleaner and better-organized after these exams. You can find out whether the hospital is accredited by going to the joint commission Web site.
Check Hospital Ratings
A number of sites rate hospitals and provide information on diagnosis and treatment, the procedures that are performed, and how the patients fared. There are also "nurse magnet" hospitals where the best nurses work, the morale is the highest, and the hospital has the most resources. You want to be where nurses want to be.
Look for Full-Time Staff
It's crucial to know whether the hospital employees are full-time staff. Patients in hospitals without full-time staffs do not do as well.
Ask Your Doctor
Generally, good doctors are at good hospitals and many have privileges at more than one facility. If they do, do your homework and choose the right hospital for you. Another thing to do is to ask your doctor's office which hospital the doctor's family uses.
If you have vascular problems and your doctor's hospital is known for its cancer research, it may not be the best fit. It may not be right for your problem. Once you've identified the hospital you want to use, call it and ask how many of these procedures are performed there and what the results have been.
Stay With the Patient
If your loved one is in the hospital, stay with him or her, especially overnight. It's difficult for nurses to be everywhere on the night shift so if you're with your loved one, you can get help if it's needed.
Make sure that the hospital and all of your family know just what you want to do. Give someone power of attorney so that decisions can be made if you're incapacitated. No one wants to do it, but it's free and crucial to have in place if you're in the hospital.