Disposables like catheters, guide wires and balloons used in every angioplasty are reused and billed repeatedly in many private hospitals.
Adding to the risk of infection, you could be paying for something that has already been paid for. And the hospital may be making a profit of Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 on every procedure with simple reuse and rebilling, say industry sources.
The practice is so rampant that the health ministry has issued an office memorandum warning against reuse of disposable surgical items, particularly in cardiology, when they are meant for one-time use.
“The items after one procedure are sterilised and reused and (patients) are charged full amount of these items,” stated the memo dated December 21, 2016. The matter had been “viewed by this ministry seriously”, it said, and clarified that “reuse of disposable items, particularly in cardiology and other specialties, is not permitted in healthcare organisations empanelled under CGHS (Central Government Health Scheme)”.
It goes on to warn of “suitable action including withdrawal of CGHS empanelment” against defaulters. It is silent on action against big corporate hospitals that are not empanelled under CGHS.
“Most private hospitals, especially hospitals chains, insist that cardiologists reuse these items. While reusing these items a couple of times might be justified in some cases where you want to help bring down costs for a patient, in most of these hospitals, not only do they reuse four or five times, patients are also billed afresh for each of these items, helping the hospitals make a profit of Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 on each procedure or patient,” explained a cardiologist who has worked in several leading private hospitals.
All disposable items have clear instructions on the packaging saying they should be used only once and cannot be resterilised. Some cardiologists in private hospitals admitted that reuse was common but said it was not a problem if the items were properly resterilised. Companies, they said, insisted on single use to sell more of their products.
Cath lab technicians and dealers who sell disposables and stents to hospitals also confirmed that such reuse was common. Hospitals like AIIMS and PGI hardly ever reuse these items as there is no pressure to cut corners to make profit.
“In the US, solid catheters or catheters without holes can be resterilised and reused but only once or twice. But reuse of catheter with holes like a guide catheter used in angioplasty is not allowed as it is difficult to clean the insides where blood residue might remain. This is to prevent any chance of HIV and Hepatitis B infection. Also, resterilising affects the quality of the item as it hardens the plastic, making it less flexible,” explained a senior AIIMS cardiologist.
Chain hospitals are the worst offenders, according to a cardiologist who has worked in one such institution. “If doctors in one hospital in the chain reuse an item five or six times, that is lauded as a great example of cost saving. It is pushed as standard operating procedure across the entire chain, putting enormous pressure on doctors who try to resist such unethical overuse of a disposable item,” explained the cardiologist.
“Reuse is bad and doing so without the patient’s consent is criminal,” said another cardiologist. “And charging for resued items is fraud of the highest order being done in most elite hospitals to push up profits. It is easy to investigate and expose this. The government can get the number of angioplasties done in a hospital and ask for proof of purchase of the disposables for the last two years. There is a formula for how many disposables are needed for each angioplasty. They will find that far fewer disposables have been purchased than the required number, which will show clear reuse. Such hospitals should be prosecuted,” he said.
However, reusing of items with patients’ consent to reduce costs for the poor should not be treated as criminal acts, he added.