By Julia Belluz - Thursday, July 19, 2012 - 0 Comments
When patients go into the hospital for a surgery, it’s next to a miracle they ever leave the building unscathed. It’s not that hospital administrators and health professionals don’t do their best to protect patients—they do. But with the incredible complexity of surgeries and modern hospital systems, the intricate pathways of care, there are infinite possibilities for things to go wrong.
In the media, we tend to focus on the risks related to hospital-acquired infections or the wild pre-checklist days. But there’s another danger that isn’t talked about much outside of medical circles: getting a blood-borne infection, such as HIV, hep C and hep B, from your health-care provider.
Precautions are taken at every turn to make sure diseases aren’t transmitted from doctor or nurse to patient—and vice versa. And the risk of transmission is remote. Extremely, utterly, almost infinitesimally remote. To give you a sense, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the occupational risk of infection with hep C after a needlestick injury or cut is less than two per cent. That’s somewhere between the risks related to HIV (less than one per cent) and hepatitis B (six to 30 per cent, though surgeons working today would be vaccinated for hep B).
In Canada there have been no documented cases of physicians transmitting hep C or HIV to patients since modern antiviral therapies came on the scene to treat blood-borne pathogens and doctors started implementing what’s known as “universal precautions”—or avoiding contact with patients’ bodily fluids by using gloves, gowns and masks. There has been one reported case of hep B transmission, but it occurred before antivirals and universal precautions. Worldwide, the documented number of health-care worker to patient transmissions of blood-borne infections since 1991 has been “exceedingly low.”
Yet, provincial medical regulators in Canada are targeting blood-borne pathogens in surgeons. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario just introduced a new policy that asks surgeons—and those who assist in surgery—to report if they have been tested for the blood-borne pathogens hep B, hep C, and HIV in the last year.