MRSA: The Risks of Medical Misdiagnosis

One of the more worrisome aspects of modern medicine is the possibility of leaving the hospital sicker than when you went in—or maybe not ever coming out again at all. Many times, complications in hospital and related settings result from healthcare-associated infections (HAIs). Both the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have released data concluding that over one million HAIs annually cause about 90,000 deaths in the U.S.

What’s even more troubling is the growing prevalence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Most of the infections that result from such bacteria—86 percent of all such infections—are contracted in hospitals and similar health care settings. When few antibiotics are able to cure a specific type of bacteria, obtaining an accurate diagnosis rapidly, so that the proper antibiotic can be given, can become critical to saving a life.

Sometimes the antibiotic-resistant bacteria which causes a serious health crisis is a type of staph infection called MRSA, often pronounced “mersa.” MRSA is one of a group of bacteria that can produce a severe tissue and skin infection known as “necrotizing fasciitis.” Such an infection is more commonly known as “flesh-eating” bacteria. While a “flesh-eating” bacterial infection is not common, when it does strike, it can maim and kill its sufferer quickly if the bacteria are resistant to existing antibiotics.

What is MRSA?

Maryland DoctorMRSA, or Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus, is sometimes called a “superbug” because it is resistant to almost all antibiotics. MRSA is extremely challenging to treat and cure once it gains a foothold, especially in someone who is already sick or who has a compromised immune system. MRSA is resistant to such commonly-used antibiotics as methicillin, penicillin, amoxicillin, and oxacillin.

Staphylococcus aureus (S. aureus) is one common bacterium that many of us carry in our noses or on our skin. About one-third of people have S. aureus resident in their noses. Surprisingly, around 2 percent of the population carries MRSA with no ill effects.

What Causes MRSA?

MRSA is spread both by skin-to-skin contact and from a person to an object. When that person is either one of the 2 percent that carries MRSA or has an active MRSA infection, a transfer of contagion can occur. Distressingly, MRSA can live for an exceedingly long time on a number of surfaces, such as floors, door handles, faucets and taps, cleaning equipment, and on fabrics. In one study of S. aureus, a number of fabrics were contaminated with the bacteria in specific amounts. The results demonstrated that S. aureus survived on many fabrics commonly found in health care settings:

  • On cotton (clothing) for 4 to 21 days
  • On terry cloth (towels and washcloths) for 2 to 14 days
  • On a polyester-cotton blend (scrub suits and lab coats) for 1 to 3 days
  • On 100 percent polyester (privacy drapes and curtains) for 1 to 40 days
  • On polypropylene (splash aprons) for 40 to more than 51 days.

Hospital-Acquired MRSA Infections

People in a hospital are the ones most likely to suffer from MRSA. Anyone with a weakened immune system is at risk: those who regularly receive hemodialysis for kidney failure, those who are receiving treatments for cancer, and those who have been in the hospital for a long time. Also at risk is anyone who has had recent surgery, has a catheter or IV needle inserted, an open skin wound or burn, or who has received frequent antibiotic treatments.

Age also plays a role. The average age of a person with a hospital-acquired MRSA infection is 68. MRSA is also found in nursing home settings, where bed sores, surgical wounds, invasive procedures, and catheters and tubing can combine with weakened immune systems to wreak havoc.

Some estimate that between 49 and 65 percent of healthcare-associated S. aureus infections are brought about by strains that are methicillin-resistant. Each year in the U.S., over 94,000 MRSA infections are diagnosed. Approximately 20 percent of those who contract MRSA will die.

How Do You Test for MRSA?

The only way you can know for sure that you have MRSA is to be tested. Samples of various bodily fluids (pus, sputum, urine, and other fluids) are used to culture bacteria in the lab. Obtaining results usually takes from 1 to 3 days. Newer tests that identify the DNA of the bacteria are faster, producing results in hours. Occasionally, doctors also test the cultured bacteria to determine which antibiotic is likeliest to kill the infection.

Why is Proper Diagnosis So Critical?

MRSA requires extremely prompt attention and exactly the right antibiotics to nip the infection’s progress in the bud and prevent the development of the “flesh-eating” phase. We have four good reasons why you should get a MRSA test right away if the circumstances warrant it:

  • The misdiagnosis of MRSA is extremely common! The doctor might think your infection is an insect bite (perhaps from a spider) or another type of bacterial infection. But a misdiagnosis is a waste of the time needed to cure MRSA before it spirals out of control. If you have good reason to think that you might have MRSA, be firm and ask for the appropriate tests.
  • Both staph and MRSA are deadly. The nearly 19,000 annual fatalities from MRSA add up to more deaths than from either AIDS, emphysema, or homicide. If MRSA deeply invades your body, the dangers include blood poisoning (septicemia) and pneumonia caused by MRSA. Some recent strains of MRSA are resistant to even the most powerful antibiotics; time is of the essence if you are to be cured at all.
  • One of the especially devious aspects of MRSA is that it can morph into a “stealth” bacteria, forming a biofilm, and end up virtually untouchable by antibiotics.
  • Both aureus and MRSA are highly contagious. If you are infected, it is critical that you be cured so that you don’t spread it to others.

The Difficulty with False Negatives

Sometimes tests for MRSA will produce a false negative, meaning that it will show you don’t have MRSA when you actually do. False negatives for MRSA can be disturbingly commonplace, ranging from 6 to 30 percent of all results. Such false negatives can have grave consequences. If you have MRSA but are not treated due to a false negative, the following consequences could occur:

  • You remain in the population, infecting others
  • You receive antibiotics that do nothing to cure your infection
  • Your MRSA infection may progress to something much more serious, such as necrotizing fasciitis or death.

Failing to be properly treated can mean a prolonged, costly illness at best, and extremely serious or fatal results at worst. If you don’t improve fairly quickly while taking antibiotics, ask to be re-cultured and retested for MRSA and other resistant bacteria.

Could I Have MRSA?

It’s important to realize that, although most MRSA infections occur in hospital and health care settings, anyone can develop a MRSA infection if the circumstances are right. If you have an infected area that is painful, hot to the touch, covers a large area, and isn’t healing, see your doctor right away. If you have reason to believe you might have MRSA, or if you have had it in the past, make sure your doctor tests to discover which antibiotic might work for you.

In the hospital, if you feel that you are growing sicker, or if you see your loved one with a suspicious infection that is clearly debilitating them, ask about MRSA testing immediately. Doctors can mistake MRSA for other types of infections; accurate testing in the lab is really the only way to know for sure whether an infection is MRSA.

Medical misdiagnosis can be considered negligence and proper grounds for a medical malpractice suit. When a doctor or hospital does not diagnose MRSA accurately due to negligence, and such misdiagnosis means either that a patient grows gravely ill, develops necrotizing fasciitis, or dies, you may be able to file a medical malpractice suit.

Let Down by Modern Medicine? Let “The Injury Lawyer” Help You.

An experienced medical malpractice attorney such as Maryland attorney Steven H. Heisler  will be able to listen to the facts of your case, conduct a thorough investigation, and help you devise a legal strategy for obtaining compensation for your injuries. Due to the involvement of insurance companies and defendants who can afford a strong legal team, it’s a good idea to equip yourself with an attorney who has extensive experience when it comes to medical malpractice. Not every medical malpractice claim will hold up in court. However, the only way to determine this is through a thorough case review.

If you or a loved one has suffered as the result of what you believe to be medical malpractice, contact the law offices of The Injury Lawyer, Steven H. Heisler,  today for a free initial consultation regarding whether you have a case at (410) 625-4878. If you prefer, use our online contact form.