Dirty surgical tools a dangerous, growing problem

Blood, tissue and other debris from previous procedures sometimes remain on the surgical tools used on other patients. Even worse, the problem is growing, according to NBC News. Investigations at hospitals across the country have revealed the use of dirty surgical instruments, such as arthroscopic shavers, have led to infection outbreaks.

For instance, seven surgical patients at Houston's Methodist Hospital contracted potentially lethal infections, according to NBC News. The hospital and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched an investigation and closed operating rooms for two weeks. After consulting with the Stryker, the device manufacturer of the arthroscopic shavers used at Methodist, the hospital said they properly followed cleaning instructions, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

"We regret that our patients had this experience," Methodist vice president of quality Maureen Disbot said, "but we have done everything, and we have now fixed the problem."

Methodist technicians now inspect the inside of every shaver with a tiny video camera to make sure it is clean before use.

Hospital-acquired infections are notoriously difficult to track to their sources, but there are a few reasons why dirty surgical tools could be making their rounds. Although it's difficult to pinpoint exactly who is to blame for dirty instruments and infections--bacteria can hide anywhere from a doctor's unwashed hands to a nurse's dirty scrubs--some experts say that it has to do with the rise in minimally invasive surgeries. Whereas traditional surgical tools are made from steel, more tools today are made from tungsten, plastic and other polymers.

Another reason is that central sterile techs who process the dirty tools are overworked and underpaid, not to mention, pressured to clean the tools quickly so tools can return to other revenue-generating surgeries, the Center for Public Integrity article noted.

The FDA has asked arthroscopic shaver manufacturers to study how the instruments are being cleaned, but the agency didn't commented on the findings, according to Fox News.

In 2010, there were 2.1 million arthroscopic knee procedures, and only 1 percent led to adverse events, FDA spokeswoman Karen Riley said. "This does not merit withdrawal of a valuable device," she said.

As for hospitals, the FDA told NBC News, "Hospitals are reminded to carefully clean and sterilize reusable medical devices. A patient's risk of acquiring an infection from a reprocessed medical device is very low."  

For more information:
- read the iWatch News report
- read the Fox News article
- see the NBC News article

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