Understaffed NICU wards linked to infections in low-birth-weight infants

According to a recent study performed by the New Jersey School of Public Health, understaffed neonatal intensive care units may lead to higher rates of hospital-acquired infection for very-low-birth-weight, or VLBW, babies. These infections may lead to birth defects, which can impact a child for his or her entire life. Additionally, the financial impact is significant as well. Permanent organ or tissue damage wrought by infections at birth could lead to increased hospital bills and potentially higher lifetime healthcare costs and potentially lower earnings potential.

About the study

The March 18 study, published online by the Journal of the American Medical Association, was a retrospective cohort study measuring nurse staffing and infection rates according to guidelines created by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical organizations. It studied infection rates among infants weighing less than 1,500 grams, or about 3.3 pounds, required to stay in NICU wards for at least three days. Studies were done on 67 NICUs in the national Vermont Oxford Network. Infections were judged based on blood or cerebrospinal fluid samples taken more than three days after birth from over 10,000 infants discharged in 2008 and 2009.

The study found that hospitals were understaffed and consequently unable to provide adequate care for 32 percent of all VLBW infants in NICU wards. Further, the tested wards were found to be inadequately staffed for 68 percent of high-acuity VLBW infants, or the sickest eight percent. In hospitals with proper staffing, infection rates were approximately only nine percent; this figure more than doubled in understaffed hospitals to around 20 percent.

The greatest cause of danger

The most common hospital-acquired infections among neonatal infants stem from staph bacteria. The main way staph infections are transmitted are through tiny catheters used to give VLBW babies food, water and medicine. Understaffed hospitals may cause neonatal nurses to spend less time on catheter hygiene.

Until hospitals in New Jersey and across the nation find less dangerous means of running in a cost-efficient manner, the percentage of devastating infections in newborns in understaffed wards is unlikely to drop. Hopefully the study encourages hospitals across the country to improve the management of their neo-natal units to reduce infections in VLBW babies. A medical professional or hospital that fails to provide an accepted level of care or provides a level of care that is no longer the standard, may be liable for medical malpractice.

While nothing can reverse a lifelong diagnosis resulting from a birth defect caused by a hospital-acquired infection, a skilled medical malpractice lawyer can provide advice, counsel and court representation for a personal injury or wrongful death claim.