A New Problem For Hospitals – And Patients

When you go to the hospital for an operation, you expect that the hospital will have the surgical instruments and medical devices the surgeon will need to perform the procedure.  With rare exceptions, that has not been a problem in the past.  That is about to change.

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We all know what surgical instruments are.  We often forget, however, how many medical devices are needed for even the simplest of surgeries.  Think of breathing tubes, IV sets, disposable catheters, pads, sponges, needles, prosthetic implants, trays and the like.  The list goes on and on.

Before they can be used on a patient, a surgical instrument or device must be sterilized.  Fully half of all surgical instruments and devices sold in the United States are sterilized through the use of a gas called ethylene oxide.  The gas is a dangerous one to people as well as to the kinds of microbes and germs which can cause illness if left on surgical instruments or devices.  There are only a few factories that use the gas to sterilize instruments and devices before they are sold to hospitals.  Due to environmental concerns arising out of high levels of the gas being released into the atmosphere, the Illinois EPA has closed one plant already.  That plant has announced that it will not reopen.  Another plant, this one in Georgia, is temporarily closed while it remodels to reduce the risk of gas escaping into the environment.  These two plants processed a substantial percentage of all the sterile instruments, devices and supplies sold in the United States.

There has already been a temporary shortage of pediatric breathing tubes.  The FDA has been monitoring the situation and working with manufacturers and suppliers.  Now it is warning hospitals and the public of possible shortages of a wide range of instruments, devices and supplies.  It is looking at alternative methods of sterilization and even the possibility of importing sterile instruments and devices into the United States if manufacturers are not able to meet demand.

Keep your fingers crossed that when you need surgery, the instruments and devices will be available.  If you are facing an elective surgery, it is probably a good idea to inquire about any existing or expected shortages.  You may even have to consider going to another hospital, if it has the equipment your surgeon needs.

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