Operating Room Fires – Increasingly Prevalent Problem Presents Potential For Product Innovation

Operating room fires, once thought to be rare, isolated incidents, apparently are more prevalent than previously realized. The nonprofit healthcare research organization ECRI Institute published a report suggesting that hundreds of fires occur during the roughly 50 million inpatient and outpatient procedures that take place annually, often resulting in serious injury or death. This is a significant increase from the 50-100 previously estimated by patient safety organizations.

Some medical groups say fires have increased over the past two decades with the increased use of lasers and tools employing electric current. The ECRI estimates that 44 percent of operating room fires occur during head, face, neck or chest surgery in which electrical surgical tools and lasers are too close to the oxygen the patients are breathing.

The current ideology is that the basic elements of fire – heat, fuel, and oxidizer – are always present during surgery, and only through training and instituting stricter guidelines can these horrible accidents be prevented. Unfortunately, few products exist that could lower the risk of operating room fires and explosions. This suggests that the market for such products presents a potentially lucrative opportunity for medical device and pharmaceutical companies to focus their research and development. A patent review similarly shows little activity in this area, again leading to the conclusion that opportunity awards imaginative innovators.

Fuel Is Abundant in the OR

Fuels commonly found in the operating theater include prepping agents like degreasers (ether, and acetone), aerosol adhesives, and tinctures such as hibitane, merthiolate, and duraprep. Other fuels include supplies: drapes, gowns, masks, hoods, caps, shoe covers, instrument and equipment drapes and covers, egg-crate mattresses, mattresses and pillows, blankets, gauze, sponges, dressings, ointments such as petroleum jelly, paraffin and white wax, flexible endoscopes, covering for fiber optic cables, gloves, stethoscope tubing, smoke evacuator hoses and other equipment/supplies used in the OR.

Oxidizers in the OR include oxygen enriched mixtures above 21 percent oxygen used to ensure proper oxygenation of the patient during anesthesia. Whenever the oxygen concentration is above 21 percent, an oxygen enriched atmosphere exists with the potential to feed fires. Oxygen is supplied via anesthesia devices, ventilators, wall outlets, or gas cylinders and all are potentially hazardous. Oxygen can also come from the thermal decomposition of nitrous oxide, which should also be considered an oxygen-enriched atmosphere. Materials such as drapes absorb oxygen and retain it for some time which makes them easier to ignite, causes them to burn faster and hotter, and makes them much harder to extinguish.

The Key Is Controlling Heat Sources

The introduction of lasers, electro-surgical tools and other exothermic surgical instruments has significantly increased the incidence and risk associated with operating theater fires. ECRI notes that the key to preventing fires involving surgical patients is controlling the OR’s various heat sources and preventing them from contacting fuels. Beyond that, however is the potential to reduce the chances materials will combust. Currently, the medical community is completely reliant on alcohol-based antiseptic products and surgical textiles that trap oxygen within their fibers. With the current surgical antiseptic industry alone worth over $500 million dollars, a company that can develop a fire-resistant alternative that offers the same antimicrobial protection found in traditional alcoholic based antiseptics could dominate this market and become an industry leader and innovator.

Just a Few Patents Recently Filed

However, few companies appear to be innovating in this area. Patenting activity, for example, suggests that medical device and pharmaceutical companies have not realized the opportunity that exists in technologies that could launch them as the new industry leaders. In fact, the few recent patents addressing preventative technology innovations are exclusively assigned to individual inventors.

One such patent, for example, describes a fire-resistant phosphate composition with antibacterial, antiviral and fungicidal properties that claims to be ecologically pure, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic and non-allergic. Another patent describes a surgical drape designed to prevent the buildup of trapped oxygen and thereby decrease the risk of fire. Yet another describes an oxygen sensor system that would sound an alarm if oxygen levels are unsafe.

The fact that these fires were significantly under-reported but are now gaining extensive media scrutiny increases the need for innovative companies to address minimizing these risks through their product development strategies. The lack of innovative patents indicates there is a potential to tap into a severely deficient market opportunity. Are you up for the challenge?