I guess it could have been worse…

About 400 patients of a Spokane surgery center are being notified of unsafe practices at the facility between 2006 and last April. They are also being advised to get blood tests after a recent inspection indicated the center’s surgical technologist was reusing syringes and possibly vials of medicine meant for single patients.

According to a recent article that appeared in the Spokane-based Spokesman-Review newspaper, the Washington state Health Department said a staff member was using a new hypodermic needle for each injection, but infection control standards call for disposal of the syringe and vial after a single use, regardless of whether medicine remains and is being used on for the same patient.

The article also notes that the surgical center disputes the Health Department’s findings and no patient has been exposed to a needle or syringe used on another patient. Furthermore, the center stopped the improper practices as soon as they were brought to light. The facility remains open.

This story drew my undivided attention as I was sifting through news items over a cup of coffee Wednesday morning because I initially thought it was going to reveal details about an incredibly unsafe health practice at the Spokane surgery center. This is primarily because the words “reusing syringes” indicate they were being used on multiple patients. Thankfully, that’s not the case.

However, as the day went on, I began to consider another aspect of this situation. Why did it take so long for the public to find out about improper practices happening at the facility if the center was taken to task in April and immediately took measures to address the problem? After all, the state Health Department is only now sending out notification letters to the 400 or so patients.  It seems the risk of an infected patient are low, but shouldn’t patients be informed sooner than six months after the reuse of syringes ceased? Isn’t it possible the news of the unsafe practices would have caused potential patients to consider undergoing surgical procedures at surgery centers other than this one between now and last April?

In my opinion, that’s the real takeaway to this story. Days, weeks, and months can go by before a patient is notified about an unsafe healthcare practice. How the situation between the state Health Department and this particular Spokane surgery center has played out is an unsettling reminder that a patient's best interest can be overlooked in the face of negative publicity.

Again, it could have been worse. Syringes and vials of medicine could have been used on multiple patients. Those patients could have been exposed to harmful pathogens. But I’m still not so sure why it took so long for news of this situation to make its way into the public sphere. When it comes to communicating matters of infection control and prevention, (immediate) honesty and transparency should rule the day.

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