Stanford University
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Dirty surgical tools causing deadly infections

Posted 2:32 PM, February 23, 2012, by Joyce Ho

Imagine that you go in for a routine surgery with a 6 day projected recovery time. You go into surgery, come out, go home, and think everything is okay. A day later you wake up and your surgical site is red and swollen. Hours later it's oozing pus and by the time you get taken to the ER you're feverish and delirious. A series of surgeries follow, all in an attempt to cure you of a deadly infection introduced to your body through contaminated surgical tools.

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This is the nightmare that many patients face after going through "simple" surgeries. Throughout the past few weeks, I have been working with Today Show producer Kerri Zimmer on various aspects of the piece. I'm amazed at just how much footage (and hard hard work) goes into making a 5 minute piece, which is considered a longer piece for the Today Show. To make this, Kerri flew to Virginia to interview Sharon Green-Golden, the head of the sterile processing unit at Bon Secours Mary Immaculate Hospital in Virginia, Michigan to interview clinical engineer Jahan Azizi at the University of Michigan, and Texas to find John Harrison, the victim of a surgical site infection due to dirty instruments.

Through watching all the hours and hours of tapes that were carefully screened for the right sound bites and B-Roll (background video of people doing things like working, cleaning tools, walking around, doing their routine while the story is being narrated), I got to learn more than I ever thought I would about sterile processing. Everything needs to be washed, sterilized, and repackaged. This process is getting even harder as medical tools are getting fancier and fancier aka harder to wash. The FDA currently isnít doing anything to regulate the sterilization process, but more and more doctors, patients, and sterilizing specialists are trying to get certification statuses for this profession.


This was an interesting piece in the news tonight. I didn't realize that people didn't get training to clean these critical instruments. I assume that advocacy for certification in this important task drove the rational for presenting this piece.

That being said, I think the nightly news owes the public at least an estimation of how frequently these contamination cases occur. Is this widespread or exceptionally rare? Otherwise this story risks becoming another case of where fear is used to drive the medical news. Which in my opinion will further foster the public's distrust of the medical system.

Comment by: sms at February 24, 2012 2:22 AM

This is definitely a valid comment and thanks for bringing that up. We definitely thought of that too, and the other research fellow and I spent a long time on the phone with the FDA trying to track down the numbers. However, the FDA only measures "Surgical Site Infections", broken down by type of procedure. Surgical site infections include contaminated medical equipment, but also could be contamination of the skin at the site of incision or bacteria trapped in the gauze wrapping the wound, among others. Because no one is tracking infections from contaminated instruments, we have no way of quantifying the number of cases. However, this is a major problem that deserves more national attention so we CAN get more quantitative data. Hopefully Dr. Nancy's story will do just that.

Comment by: Joyce Ho at March 1, 2012 12:40 PM

I have been working the surgical field for 20 years I think it is time for the federal and states to require the sterile processing technicians be certified. I do not understand how this has not happen yet. It is one of the most important jobs in surgery, yet they do not have to be certified.

Comment by: Scott Ludwig at March 6, 2012 12:20 PM

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