Safety concerns mount as more hospitals recycle single-use devices

About one-fourth of U.S. hospitals now clean and reuse single-use devices such as surgical scissors, pulse oximeter sensors, ultrasound catheters, and compression sleeves, raising concerns about patient safety.

Although this "reprocessing" movement is supported by hospital administrators and green-conscious employees and is transforming the healthcare sector's reputation as one of the biggest contributors to waste, it's controversial, with opponents ranging from patient advocates to manufacturers who are concerned about safety.

"It is unconscionable for a healthcare worker or an institution to subject an unsuspecting and uninformed patient to unnecessary risk just to save a few dollars," said Michael Bennett, president of the Coalition for Patients' Rights in Maryland. "There are plenty of other areas in healthcare where money can be saved without jeopardizing patient safety, such as better infection control and fewer errors."

He contends hospitals should find vendors that provide durable items that are not marked for single use.

But a recent Government Accountability Office study found that reprocessing is safe, despite little research to date on the emerging trend.

In addition, among the 434 adverse events reported to the FDA between 2003 and 2006 in which reprocessed SUDs were identified, "only 65 actually did involve a reprocessed device, and all adverse events were similar to those reported for new devices," said Dr. Martin A. Makary, a surgeon and associate professor of public health at John Hopkins University School of Medicine who has studied the trend.

Makary has traveled to FDA-approved reprocessing plants to evaluate how the equipment is cleaned and refitted. About 100 medical items have FDA approval for reprocessing to be reused at hospitals.wrote Makary, who is co-author of an analysis of reprocessing with renowned John Hopkins safety expert Dr. Peter J. Pronovost to be published in the March issue of the journal Academic Medicine.

To learn more about reprocessing equipment at hospitals:
- check out this commentary in Academic Medicine
- read this Baltimore Sun article