To the editor: First, my condolences to the family of Sharley McMullen, who died after acquiring a bacterial infection in the hospital. ("No one knows how many patients are dying from superbug infections in California hospitals," Oct. 2)
Second, it is the state medical board's mandate that when documenting cause of death, the rule is to list the originating proximate medical ailment that led to death even though the final cause may seem disparate. This is not an act of deception. Its purpose is for statistical categorization so that public health policy people can get a measure of what are the most common causes of mortality.
Third, while medical providers need to do as much as they can to maintain infection control through washing hands, they are fighting a losing battle. The main cause of superbugs is the overuse of antibiotics. Patients receive them frequently for viral infections that aren't even killed by antibiotics.
Yes, doctors over-prescribe antibiotics, but frequently even after explaining this reality, patients still want to get a prescription. Can you blame the doctor for giving the prescription to the patient, especially after the patient explains that their co-worker took a Z-Pak for the exact same thing and got better?
My advice to people next time they get a prescription for an antibiotic is to ask the doctor if they truly need it.
Joey Liu, MD, Newbury Park
To the editor: As a physician and a cancer patient, I'm concerned this article gives readers wrong impressions of what to do when they are sick.
There's no doubt that McMullen died from an infection she received during her treatment for a bleeding ulcer. However, medicine has made huge strides in preventing these kinds of infections that are costing more than $30 billion annually.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has targeted major sources of healthcare-associated infections and set quality improvement goals. In addition to hand-washing, multiple modalities to control cross-contamination between patients have been implemented, including surgical preparations, limited hospitalizations, changing catheters and more. Consequently, the rate of healthcare-associated infections has been decreasing.
We still have a ways to go, but it's vital to let readers know that when needed, it is still safer to go to the hospital than not to. Additionally, patients should also know they can go to cdph.ca.gov to view their hospital's performance on preventing infection.
Christine Wu, MD, Oakland
To the editor: It occurs to me after reading your excellent investigation that if these infections were properly reported and lawsuits resulted from the many that are preventable, the cost of healthcare would skyrocket.
Nonetheless, the justification used by Dr. Yasmeen Shaw that her patient wouldn't have died from the infection had she not been in the hospital for her condition, and so the condition was responsible, is like saying that a patient did not die from a botched hernia surgery, but from the hernia that had brought him to the hospital in the first place.
Dennis Stone, Los Angeles