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Feds back Michigan probe of dirty DMC instruments

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Federal regulators approved Michigan’s decision to launch an investigation of dirty, broken and missing surgical instruments at five Detroit Medical Center hospitals, state officials confirmed Friday.

The state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs (LARA) announced the investigation Thursday hours after The Detroit News reported the system’s Midtown hospitals have been plagued with problems cleaning surgical devices, putting patients at risk for more than a decade.

“We work in tandem with CMS and need their approval to launch an investigation,” spokesman Jason Moon, said Friday of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the federal agency that regulates hospitals.

The News investigated more than 200 pages of emails and internal reports showing that doctors complained to DMC top officials for more than 11 years that patients were being put at risk by instrument problems, which caused surgeries to be interrupted or canceled.

Gov. Rick Snyder on Friday said the reports were troubling.

“You’ve got to be concerned about issues like that because that involves the public and their health,” the governor said following an event in Lansing.

Improperly sterilized tools complicated operations from brain surgeries to spinal fusions, kept patients under anesthesia unnecessarily and canceled dozens of operations. Some instruments were covered with old blood or bits of bone from previous surgeries, that even when sterilized are biohazards that can trigger infection, septic shock and even death if they come into contact with patients. In one recent 17-month period, Children’s Hospital of Michigan logged 186 complaints about dirty, missing or incomplete instrument sets.

The likelihood that patients or their families would know that a dirty or broken instrument was involved in their surgeries is low, according to experts. There’s no requirement that a hospital or its employees reveal that dirty or broken instruments were involved in a surgery.

Snyder said state regulators will be “looking into” whether Michigan needs new regulations to increase hospital transparency or make it easier for people to file complaints.

“I don’t want to jump to conclusions too quickly,” the governor said.

Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, who served as CEO of the DMC until he resigned in 2012 to campaign for mayor, attempted to fix the instrument situation in 2010 by consolidating three sterile processing departments serving the systems’ five Midtown hospitals into one in the basement at Detroit Receiving Hospital. The facility serves DMC’s Children’s Hospital and Detroit Receiving, Harper University, Hutzel Women’s and DMC Heart hospitals.

DMC officials and their for-profit owner, Tenet Healthcare of Dallas, declined requests for comment about The News’ findings, pointing to an earlier statement saying the system has outsourced management of instrument sterilization to a private company.

In late May, the DMC signed a contract with Unity HealthTrust of Birmingham, Alabama, to take over management of sterile processing. The agreement came one day after The News first inquired about the situation. That deal, which began June 1, did not involve job losses and allows the company to recommend and implement changes.

LARA officials Friday said the agency’s investigation will include onsite inspections, but would not provide a time, adding the inspections will be unannounced. A multidisciplinary team of state building and health inspectors will look at records, charts, policies and procedures. Team members also would interview patients and staff. State officials would not say if they’ll be joined by CMS inspectors.

LARA is encouraging those with concerns to contact state officials. Complaints pertinent to the investigation can be filed online at or by phone at 800-882-6006.

Twitter: @kbouffardDN