Hospital hygiene scare continues

Tue, 01/09/2007 - 05:32

Inspections were carried out in hospitals across Italy on Monday amid a hygiene scare sparked by a journalistic expose' of deplorable conditions inside the country's biggest hospital.

The health ministry said spot checks were being made on hospitals by the Carabinieri police's health and hygiene unit NAS.

It said their findings would be assessed by Premier Romano Prodi and Health Minister Livia Turco and appropriate action taken.

The ministry said the NAS inspectors would focus on standards of hygiene and cleanliness and whether patients' health could be considered at risk.

The move followed last week's publication of a shocking report written by an Italian journalist who spent a month working undercover as a cleaner at Rome's Umberto I hospital - the largest hospital in Europe.

Using a small hidden camera, journalist Fabrizio Gatti photographed and filmed dirty floors and corridors, hazardous refuse that had been abandoned inside the hospital, staff smoking outside the children's intensive care unit and cleaning mops and brooms that were old and soiled.

The report, which appeared in news weekly L'Espresso, painted a picture of filth and negligence which jeopardised patients' health.

NAS officers returned on Monday to Umberto I, a sprawling structure under the management of Rome's La Sapienza University.

The officers examined wards and corridors which were not included in a first inspection carried out last Friday on magistrates' orders.

The health minister has expressed particular concern about the possible impact of poor hygiene on hospital infection levels.

Between 4,500-7,000 patients die each year in Italy because of infections contracted while in hospital.

Hospital infections are considered a factor in another 21,000 patient deaths per year while up to 700,000 patients contract non-fatal infections.

In 2005, 6.7% of all hospital patients were hit by infections which in at least 30% of cases could have been avoided.

Piero Marrazzo, who heads the regional government of Lazio of which Rome is the capital, said he was "shocked and dismayed" by the L'Espresso article.

"It's unbelievable that such basic hygiene and safety norms could be breached in such a way in a hospital," he said.

Marrazzo also said he wanted a thorough review of the hospital's cleaning contracts, warning the outside contractors that they could see their deals revoked or suffer penalties if they were found to be at fault in any way.

In his article, Gatti reported that the four floors of Umberto I's eye care unit were cleaned by two people hired by the contractor Pultra.

He said that during his month at the hospital, one of the cleaners was off sick and so the other had to do all the work single-handedly and without the aid of any industrial cleaning machines.

He noted that the 2005 contract for Pultra's services had cost the hospital 8.687 million euros.

Gatti himself was not officially hired as a cleaner but simply slipped into the hospital last month disguised as one. No-one stopped him to ask his identity or carry out a security check for the entire four weeks he was there.

He said he discovered areas of the hospital which were being used as rubbish tips with piled-up waste that included material labelled as "dangerous and infective".

He said patients, some of them in a critical condition, were wheeled through abandoned, filthy corridors that were used as short cuts between wards.

Gatti also said the filth was then transported through the hospital on the footwear of staff and the wheels of wheelchairs and trolleys.

At one point, Gatti came across some dog excrement in one of the corridors which he said remained there for three days.

Other episodes highlighted by the reporter included the abandonment of thousands of confidential patient files in a corridor and the lack of security measures on the infectious disease and radiology wards, which he said anyone could walk into.

Umberto I has in the past been at the centre of a series of health scares related to poor hygiene standards.

In 1999, four patients lost their sight after undergoing routine cataract operations while more than a dozen babies subsequently came down with mysterious intestinal infections so severe that two of them had to have part of their intestines removed.