Dirty Surgical Equipment Puts Patients at Risk for Infection and Other Potentially Serious Complications

By Justin DiJoseph -

Did you ever think a hospital’s surgical team would use dirty equipment when operating on a patient? John Harrison didn’t think so. When he went to The Methodist Hospital in Houston in 2009 for routine rotator cuff surgery, he did not expect to come out of it with a dangerous infection that would lead to more surgeries and a lawsuit.

According to iwatchnews.org, “Harrison was one of at least seven joint surgery patients at Methodist who acquired dangerous infections during a two-week period.”

During the first few weeks after the surgery, Harrison’s scar turned bright red and had a liquid oozing from it that was “like butter squeezed from a bag,” John’s wife, Laura, told the hospital.

Initially, John thought it may have been his fault – maybe he didn’t treat the wound correctly. However, after the seven hour drive to Houston, the hospital came to the conclusion that the infection ate away at his shoulder bone. The metal pieces the surgeons installed into the shoulder had become loose and “sutures had come undone.”

After repairs were made to Harrison’s shoulder and antibiotics were given to fight the infection, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) was called in to assess the situation – especially since Harrison was not the only patient at the hospital to encounter this problem.

During their investigation, the CDC came across two tools used during the surgery that seemed to have caused the infection – an arthroscopic shaver (to trim bone and tissue) and an inflow/outflow cannula (for irrigation and suction). The instruments, themselves, worked properly, the problem was due to the fact that they were not cleaned thoroughly enough.

It was reported that tap water was used to “clean” the instruments.

According to “The Care and Handling of Surgical Instruments,” an information packet from Pfiedler Enterprises, “Decontamination can be done manually, mechanically or with a combination of both methods. It typically involves the use of a chemical cleaning solution.”

In this professional syllabus, Pfiedler provides a step-by-step guide to proper cleaning and maintenance of all surgical instruments. It states that mechanical cleaning is the preferred method, however, “some instruments cannot tolerate mechanical cleaning and will need to be manually cleaned.”

Regardless of whether mechanical or manual cleaning is done, there are a number of chemical cleaning products that need to be used during the decontamination process to ensure that the instruments are not just visibly clean.

Many of these cleaning solutions are used to eliminate microscopic residue that may be left on the equipment after a surgical procedure is performed.

According to the iwatchnews.org report, “human tissue and bone were stuck in both devices,” and a cleaning brush’s bristle was also found in the shaver.

A 2011 article written by Dr. Pritish Tosh, a former investigator at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Epidemic Intelligence Service, stated, “Evidence from the investigation suggests the Methodist infection outbreak was most likely caused by retained tissue…”

NBC News Chief Medical Editor, Dr. Nancy Snyderman, noted that the people responsible for cleaning and sterilizing the surgical instruments are not technicians, but rather paid-by-the-hour laborers.

New Jersey is the only state that requires hospital sterilization workers to undergo training.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI) in Washington, D.C. reported that those workers feel that they are pressured to do their job quickly in order to get patients in and out of “surgical suites” faster. However, the cons of that method seem to outweigh the pros.

Granted, even simple procedures can have unforeseen complications, however, too many patients like John Harrison find themselves in potentially dangerous situations that could have been prevented. More regulations are needed from the government to make sure hospitals are sterilizing surgical equipment in the best way possible to reduce the risk of post-surgery infections and other complications.

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