The Washington Post followed up on the case of the hospitals that employed used elevator hydraulic fluid rather than detergent to attempt to sterilize surgical instruments. The paper reported comments by the CEO of Duke University Health System, Dr. Victor Dzau. To explain why it took so long for administrators to figure out there was something wrong with the sterilization process, he noted that normally a lubricant is applied to surgical instruments to "make sure they don't develop rust and lock up during surgery." So, "it took us a while to figure out that this was beyond the normal level of oiliness."
Futhermore, Dzau discounted the potential health risks of the exposure, "while we understand that some patients have experience symptoms following their surgeries, everything we know would suggest that no causal connection has been established between any of the these patients outcomes and instruments exposed to the fluid in the presterilization process."
Meanwhile, this case has attracted considerable media attention, most not very flattering to Duke. A local commentator wrote in the News Observer, "what galls most is not the mistake, but the post-mistake arrogance of hospital officials. Hospital regulators accused them of ignoring clear, early distress signals being sent by staff members who knew the instruments weren't supposed to be as slippery as oiled pigs and leave a yellow residue."
Unfortunately, Dzau's remarks did not convince me otherwise. Surgical instruments are made of alloys that do not corrode easily, and its implausible that more than tiny amounts of oil are normally used in their sterilization. Although I am not a surgeon, I have seen plenty of sterilized instruments, and none of them were oily. Hence, if the instruments were really as "slippery as oiled pigs," anyone familiar with the operating room context should have identified this as a big problem.
Furthermore, Dzau's comment about causality is, while probably true, not helpful. The only way to establish that exposure to operating room instruments coated with used elevator hydraulic fluid causes particular health problems would be a controlled trial that randomized some patients to such an exposure. Such a controlled trial would clearly be unethical, and I am sure no previous trial has been done. Yet in the absence of such ultimate proof, it seems reasonable to assume that it is not a good for patients to expose them to surgical instruments washed with used hydraulic fluid.
A more productive approach would require investigating why adminstrators did not identify the oily instruments as a problem sooner.
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