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How medical devices can cause deadly infections

Medical devices can cause harm in all sorts of ways: They can damage delicate tissues, cause life-threatening side effects and inflict lasting injuries. They can also introduce deadly infections to patients whose health is already fragile.

Last month, a MedCity news article shed light on the dangers associated with a heating and cooling device used in open-heart surgeries. Over the years, the device has been linked to serious infections that resulted in several deaths. The source of contamination turned out to be the unit's water supply. Even though the water itself never came into contact with the affected patients, dangerous bacteria thriving in the water supply became airborne through the unit's exhaust system, eventually coming to rest in the patients' chest cavities.

Understanding the risks

The heating and cooling device is just one example of how a faulty design can contribute to a higher risk of infection. So, too, can improper care, use and handling, especially when it comes to common devices such as:

  • Central venous catheters (also known as central lines): Placed in or near the heart, these lines deliver fluid, blood or medication to the body quickly and directly. Yet they can be a major source of bloodstream infections. To reduce that risk, hospital staff must follow strict sterilization procedures during insertion and maintenance of the line.
  • Urinary catheters: These extremely common devices come with a high risk of urinary tract infections. Improper maintenance, insertion, removal or care can heighten that risk. The longer the catheter is used, the more likely an infection will develop.
  • Medical implants: Anything from heart valves to hip replacements to IUDs can introduce dangerous bacteria into the body. Some surfaces are friendlier to bacterial growth than others. As with other devices, proper insertion and care also make a big difference.
  • Flexible endoscopes and duodenoscopes: These devices are long, flexible scopes introduced into the digestive and respiratory systems. They're used for a variety of procedures, from exploring the upper respiratory tract to conducting colonoscopies. When not properly pre-cleaned, disinfected, stored or inspected, they can spread deadly infections. Not surprisingly, they were named among the top 10 technological hazards in health care for 2016.
  • Ventilators: Patients who are intubated have a higher risk of ventilator-associated pneumonia. The bacterial invasion can happen during the intubation process itself or sometime thereafter, when biofilms (bacterial colonies) adhere to the tube itself.

As you can see, the responsibility for reducing the risk of infection falls on a number of parties. Hospitals, doctors, nurses and medical device manufacturers all play a role in ensuring that these devices - which are intended to help patients - don't instead end up causing irreversible harm.

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