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Seattle hospital warns dialysis patients of hepatitis B risk after screening error

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SEATTLE -- Seattle’s Virginia Mason Medical Center warned dialysis patients Friday of a “very low” risk of  hepatitis B after “a lapse” in screening and isolation procedures at the hospital.

Public Health-Seattle & King County said it had conducted an investigation into the risk to patients and staff at Virginia Mason in late May, after being notified by the hospital that it had become aware that staff had not consistently screened dialysis patients for hepatitis B.

As a precaution, Virginia Mason Medical Center is reaching out to about 650 individuals who could have been at risk since 2011.

Screening and isolation of patients with hepatitis B are recommended steps to prevent transmission of the virus during dialysis.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, of Public Health-Seattle & King County, talked about the incident in an article on the department’s blog Public Health Insider.

“Our investigation showed that although routine screening and isolation of hepatitis B positive patients wasn’t happening, all the other recommended steps to prevent infections were being followed appropriately …. We did not find any evidence of increased of risk for acquiring blood borne pathogen infections in the dialysis unit. Everything that Virginia Mason was doing for infection control should be sufficient to prevent transmission of hepatitis B as well as other blood borne viruses.”

He said chronic hepatitis B is a relatively rare disease, with the overall prevalence of hepatitis B in the U.S. population at 0.3%.

“That fact, in addition to the infection control measures in place, led to our assessment that the risk of transmission of hepatitis B in this situation is very low,” Duchin said.

He said that even though the risk is low, “we agree with Virginia Mason’s decision to notify patients and the public in the interest of transparency.”

This isn’t the first time, in recent months, that a hospital may have put patients at risk. Just recently, Northwest Hospital had to notify its patients of a potential risk after a surgical technician may have exposed patients to hepatitis and HIV.

“It’s an imperfect medical society that we have, that is striving to do better,” said Tyler Goldberg-Hoss, a partner with Chemnick, Moen, Greenstreet law firm.

Goldberg-Hoss is a medical malpractice attorney and thinks both hospitals did the right thing by alerting the public.

“Without any transparency of what goes on I don’t think there can be any accountability and I think accountability is really where we can get some change that occurs,” added Goldberg-Hoss.

Virginia Mason has already changed its policy and is now automatically ordering a hepatitis B screening for all dialysis patients. They said this will ensure that anyone who has Hepatitis B is isolated from others.

Duchin said dialysis patients at Virginia Mason said “contact their health care provider or chronic dialysis provider to determine their hepatitis B status or need for further screening. We also recommend that patients who haven’t yet been vaccinated for hepatitis B (and haven’t been infected in the past) get a vaccination. Virginia Mason has a call line at 1-877-255-3793 to speak with a medical expert at Virginia Mason.”