Review blames old habits for reuse of dirty syringes

CALGARY — Isolation and old habits were the main reasons why a remote northern Alberta hospital recycled syringes that were meant to be used only once, says a report by the province’s health watchdog.

CALGARY — Isolation and old habits were the main reasons why a remote northern Alberta hospital recycled syringes that were meant to be used only once, says a report by the province’s health watchdog.

The report concludes staff at the High Prairie Health Complex were unaware it was no longer a medical practice to reuse needles to inject medicines into intravenous tubes.

“In this rural setting, they had become isolated from the evolution of these standards,” Dr. John Cowell of the Health Quality Council of Alberta said Tuesday.

“This was a failure of education and being aware of standards and working fundamentally in isolation from the rest of the system.”

But Cowell added that didn’t let the hospital off the hook.

“Regardless of where your location is, you must be aware of changing standards.”

The report recommends closer monitoring of far-flung facilities and better staff training.

Last fall, provincial officials revealed that hundreds of patients at the hospital would need to be tested for blood-borne diseases after it was learned that nurses were reusing syringes, which were intended to be used once and discarded.

The needles were used to inject IV tubes and were never directly used on patients. Still, Alberta Health Services tested about 1,500 dental and endoscopic patients for diseases from HIV to hepatitis. No infections related to the used syringes were found.

The practice introduces a remote chance of both infection and mis-medication and was largely phased out nearly a decade ago, the council found.

But, somehow, High Prairie never got the message.

The report blames a local “culture of autonomy” that was “linked with physical isolation from external influences” for the survival of techniques banned everywhere else. It also says some nurses didn’t entirely understand the intravenous equipment.

The council recommends the province tighten up reporting and review requirements to make sure all facilities use best practices.

“We think it’s a combination of the administration as well as the professions not being enabled to stay up-to-date,” Cowell said.

Last year’s elimination of regional health boards in favour of one provincial “superboard” should help ensure knowledge is up-to-date across Alberta, said Health Department spokesman John Tuckwell.

Cowell said that in an age of electronic communications, there’s no reason for any geographic area to remain isolated.

The High Prairie case also initiated a risk review in several Saskatchewan hospitals into the reuse of needles. The findings are expected to be released in August.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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