05 October 2008

UK: Hospitals' MRSA deaths could bring manslaughter charges

Last Wednesday was the first day of the new federal fiscal year, and therefore the day on which HHS's new "non-reimbursement for medical errors" rule went into effect. Under this new rule (blogged here and here and covered in this New York Times story), the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services will no longer reimburse hospitals for the increased care that a patient needs after an extreme medical error has happened. While infecting a patient with MRSA is not specifically disavowed in the rule, it outlaws reimbursement as of this year for infections associated with vascular catheters and coronary artery bypass graft surgery, and next year (Oct. 1, 2009) for surgical site infections following orthopedic procedures. (Disappointingly, CMS rejected requests to define staph septicemia and nosocomial MRSA infection as "never events.")

Now, however, it seems that the UK government is willing to go much further than our own. According to a story in The Independent (first flagged here by ace flu blogger Crawford Killian), "tough new manslaughter laws" will allow corporations — including healthcare institutions — to be held accountable for deaths in which corporate behavior plays a role:
Maria Eagle, the Justice minister, told a meeting of more than 100 chairs and non-executive directors of NHS trusts that where managers ignore warnings of health risks, prosecutions may follow. She said: "Putting the offence into context, imagine that a patient has died in a hospital infected by MRSA and the issue of corporate manslaughter has been raised. Could the organisation be prosecuted and convicted? The answer is 'possibly'. (Byline: Robert Verkaik, law editor)
Public attitudes in the UK are ripe for this change. In July, there was significant protest after it emerged — via a government report — that 345 patients died of Clostridium difficile infection at three hospitals, after government warnings, with no punishment to the hospitals. In fact, according to The Independent, the chief executive of the trust that operated all three was allowed to resign with $150,000 in foregone pay, and is now suing for additional compensation.

So far, US protests and citizen action over nosocomial MRSA infections have been within individual states (see this recent post on the new Nile's Law in California). But isn't it interesting to see what coordinated national action — granted, in a smaller country — can do.

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