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New technology in hospitals – is it safe?

Faulty medical equipment was responsible for 300 deaths and almost 5,000 serious injuries in 2013, according to a report by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Is it time for NHS trusts to rethink their maintenance policies?

Biomedical engineering is revolutionising healthcare. Next-generation technology is proving useful to everyone from radiographers, mammographers, sonographers and radiologists to physiotherapists and dieticians. However, there is a downside. As hospitals become more reliant on advanced equipment, they need to budget for a greater level of highly skilled maintenance. And it seems that many may be putting lives at risk because they lack robust maintenance policies and procedures, not to mention adequate engineering resources.

In its recent report, Biomedical Engineering: advancing UK healthcare, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers highlighted the low priority given to NHS engineers, which they say is "leading to problems caused by faulty medical equipment, cancelled operations and poor value for money for taxpayers." The report claims that over 13,000 incidents were reported to the UK regulator in 2013 and calls for urgent action to improve the quality of maintenance services, including introducing a Chief Biomedical Engineer in every NHS acute trust.

The origin of current NHS policy on equipment maintenance is a document produced by the Medical Devices Agency in the 1990s, entitled Medical Devices and Equipment Management for Hospital and Community-Based Organisations. However, in an article for the medical, biomedical and engineering website, its Chairman and Managing Director John Sandham argues that most NHS hospitals have failed to implement the policies they drafted based on this guidance, and that they "do not maintain quality at the levels that their policies aspire to".

Steve Tolan, Head of Practice at the Chartered Society of Physiotherapists (CSP), believes it's not just about having more maintenance engineers available to NHS trusts. Responding to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers report in an interview with the CSP's magazine Frontline, he said physiotherapists themselves can also help reduce the risks of equipment failure: "For the sake of patient safety, it is important for physiotherapists to maintain routine checks on equipment before supplying or administering them to patients."

The full Institution of Mechanical Engineers report is available to view online.

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