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Why Does Everything Used in U.S. Hospitals Have to be Disposable?

December 3, 2009

Okay. Maybe this seems like a stupid question, but it’s not.

by Rennett Stowe

While I seldom go to the doctor if I can help it [a habit that has surely sprung from my experience with inept doctors, fraudulent chiropractors (well, one in particular: a Carol Ward of Louisville, Kentucky – and yes I’m naming names here and I swear she’s on the take), my lack of insurance and the fact that lucky for me, most things I get seem to resolve of their own accord], I have had the chance since being in Argentina to be seen by more than one doctor.

A Smoking Doctor

Image by lanchongzi

The first occasion was when I went to get a routine exam to be accorded the privilege of starting yoga. Legislation here (which seems to be enforced in a hit or miss fashion) mandates that those who would exercise in a professionally run work-out facility must first get an EKG to insure that they wont be dropping dead on the treadmill. Smart, huh?

So when I went to the doctor before beginning yoga classes, I was told by an old man sitting behind a banged up, old metal desk in a room with a medical table to take off my shirt.

I didn’t understand when he said, “Saca la blusa,” and so he mimed the action for me. I was to take off my shirt, right in front of him with no other nurse or aide around.

I was taken aback. Litigation (and perhaps rightfully so – my point is not to condemn the patient or the doctor here) has made it so any female patient (Guys? Is this true for you, too?) being seen in the United States must have a “witness” present if any disrobing is to be done. Not so here.

To have to take any portion of my clothes off in front of someone else has always had quite different implications for me as a corn-fed American woman. I can think of several occasions when it has happened, but it has never had the dusty, old, routine feeling of detachment and professionalism I experienced on this occasion.

I was told to lie on the examining table and the doctor checked my pulse, listened to my heart, and then he swabbed my flesh with alcohol, took some round, stainless steel things about the size of a dime, settled them between my bra and my skin, and clamped some lightweight, plastic clamps to my wrists and ankles.

Were this procedure to have taken place in the United States, it would have required that sticky, disposable pads that were brand new be unwrapped from their sterile packaging to be affixed with their wires dangling prior to being attached to the EKG machine to be thrown away immediately afterwards and likely treated as a biohazard.


Image by clevercupcakes

When I went to the eye doctor, there was no need for me to be weighed or to have my temperature taken with a disposable plastic sheath. I was going to the eye doctor and I saw no one but the doctor to whom I told the nature of my problem. There wasn’t even an entire room, just a cubicle and I sat on the other side of a machine from her in a line of other patients sitting in front of other doctors and had my eye problem seen to. Nothing to throw away besides the slip my prescription was written on.

The main issues under discussion in the debate about national health insurance in the U.S. seem more to be about the waste in manpower, and the corruption and disorganization in the system than they are about the rampant and unnecessary disposable waste that we expect and demand as a part of what we consider responsible care. When you have items that have to be purchased for the most simple appointment and companies charging $15 for a band-aid, out of control costs pair with unnecessary waste to produce wastefully high costs.

I don’t think that things like this are likely to change anytime soon in the American healthcare industry, but when you see the lack of materials used in another system, you realize that what we’re used to isn’t the only way. In the no frills hospitals and doctor’s offices that I’ve been to here, I’ve come to realize that a lot of the procedure and sterility in their U.S. equivalents is more show than it is function. We are a society in which mandated procedure trumps judgement and it shows in the bottom line.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2009 2:04 pm

    You bring up some really great points here. I’ve always thought medical facilities were super wasteful of stuff, but maybe you have to be when you live in such a sue-crazy country.

    I’ll never forget this time my mom was in the hospital and she had my sister “sneak” aspirin in to her because she didn’t want to pay $45 a pill just to get rid of a headache. And she always says she’ll pass on the band-aids too, because they probably cost an arm and a leg as well, just like you said.

    The overhead at medical facilities is just way too high, and until this issue is addressed, the price of healthcare probably won’t drop anytime soon.

    • December 3, 2009 6:35 pm

      Thanks for the comment, JoAnna. I like your mom’s style!

      I’m sure part of it is practical to prevent from being sued, but another part is passing the cost on to the consumer. If you can charge sometimes as much as 50X the cost of an item, why should you waste human resources and money having people clean things that can be bought and thrown away?

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