HCA North Florida Hospital extends surgery shutdown due to instrument sterilization

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The large Florida hospital that shut down surgeries abruptly this month over concerns about sterilized operative room equipment is suspending all nonemergency surgeries for an additional week as it grapples with issues that could lead to serious patient infections, surgeons said.

The surgical schedules at North Florida Hospital in Gainesville have fallen into chaos since its announcement Jan. 17 to suspend elective procedures, according to surgeons inside the hospital who spoke on condition of anonymity because they said hospital executives ordered medical staff not to talk to reporters about the issue. Multiple surgeries were called off Friday.

The hospital is performing only a fraction of the number of surgeries it usually would, and some procedures were canceled with only hours’ notice, surgeons said. In recent days, three cardiac surgeries and four orthopedic surgeries were called off on the day of the operations, they said.

North Florida Hospital — previously known as North Florida Regional Medical Center — is one of the largest hospitals in Florida with 510 beds and 15 operating rooms. It treats more than 50,000 patients each year and has more than 1,000 employees.

It is run by HCA Florida Healthcare. The company sent executives from its corporate offices to Gainesville to manage media inquiries and has ordered that no one in the hospital talk to reporters without approval, one surgeon and other hospital employees said.

In a statement, spokeswoman Lauren Lettelier emphasized that the hospital has resumed some surgeries and was working to reschedule patients whose surgeries were postponed. She declined to answer questions about the numbers of surgeries canceled since Jan. 17, numbers of affected patients or what percentage of surgeries were going forward.

The most important thing for people to know is that the hospital is doing its best to continue to care for the community, Lettelier said.

The hospital halted surgeries amid concerns over the activities of the Sterile Processing Department, the unit in charge of cleaning and sanitizing instruments used for medical procedures. The hospital said the move was proactive and described it as an “operational matter” and an “equipment-related issue that impacted presurgical processes.”

Instruments were found in operating rooms with blood and tissue residue from earlier surgeries, according to the surgeons and other medical staff. In one case, three trays of equipment for a cardiac operation were found to be compromised, and the hospital canceled the procedure with the patient still on the surgical bed.

It wasn’t clear whether or how many patients might have been infected by improper sterilization procedures. The unit responsible is supposed to clean surgical equipment by hand, wash it and sterilize it at high temperatures before storing it on trays that remain sealed until surgeons need them.

A patient scheduled for orthopedic surgery Jan. 19 said his operation was abruptly canceled and has been rescheduled twice for mid-February with no explanation. He spoke on condition of anonymity due to concerns about upsetting hospital employees who would be operating on him.

This story was produced by Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications. The reporter can be reached at [email protected].

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