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The Throwaway Scope: A Way To Ditch Superbugs?

By Kaiser Health News  
   December 19, 2016

Upstarts are seizing on growing evidence that many reusable instruments cannot be cleaned reliably.

This article first appeared December 15, 2016 on Kaiser Health News.

By Chad Terhune

In response to a series of superbug outbreaks around the country, some doctors and hospitals are trying out disposable scopes to combat the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

U.S. regulators recently approved two new colonoscopes designed to be used just once and thrown away. They will sell for $250 or less apiece — compared to roughly $40,000 or more for a conventional scope that lasts several years but must be disinfected after each use. Other companies are promoting such devices — flexible, lighted tubes used to peer deep inside the body — for use in the lungs and kidneys.

The new scopes are coming primarily from smaller companies looking to challenge a handful of dominant device makers. The upstarts are seizing on growing evidence that many reusable instruments cannot be cleaned reliably, even when manufacturer's instructions are followed.

"If you can tell patients we have a disposable device so there's really no chance of infection, that has to be very appealing," said Chris Lavanchy, engineering director at the ECRI Institute, a nonprofit organization that tests medical devices. "This could allay public fears."

Scopes include a wide array of devices used on millions of patients annually. As they snake through a patient's throat, intestines and other cavities, they pick up mucus, blood and thousands of microbes. But the delicate devices can't be sterilized like a scalpel because intense heat would destroy crucial components.

Instead, the scopes are brushed and washed with disinfectants in preparation for the next patient. Despite those efforts, contamination can persist and drug-resistant bacteria can result in patient infections that are difficult or even impossible to treat.

The threat has led to safety alerts from the Food and Drug Administration and a recent U.S. Senate investigation into repeated failures by manufacturers and hospitals to report outbreaks.


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Kaiser Health News is a national health policy news service that is part of the nonpartisan Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

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