Anyone who has had surgery or watched those medical reality shows knows that before patients go under the knife, they’re often written on first with a marker to denote where the surgeon will cut. Bodies end up looking like a cross between a bull's-eye and a topographical map.
Doctors typically use special one-use pens designed for surgery that contain gentian violet, an anti-fungal agent, or Sharpies. Problem is, because of fears of bacterial contamination between patients, the Sharpies, which contain alcohol that can kill bacteria, are also tossed after one use. Even at about a buck a pop, it adds up over time.
That prompted a Canadian surgeon at the University of Alberta to ask a colleague to find out whether both kinds of pens harbor bacteria after one use. That colleague was Dr. Sarah Forgie, associate professor of pediatrics, faculty of medicine and dentistry, who supervised the study also worked on by resident Dr. Catherine Burton. They quickly got to the bottom of things.
Forgie knew the Sharpies contained alcohol, because, she says, "One of my kids used them to color all over my white kitchen cabinets." In determining how to remove the unwanted illustrations (she said Formula 409 worked pretty well) she learned the ingredients.
Pens were tested by contaminating them with four different types of bacteria (in quantities greater than would be found on human skin) commonly found in operating rooms, including two superbugs. They were then left out for varying time periods, from five minutes to a week. None of the Sharpies showed traces of bacteria, but the surgical pens did. Forgie notes that although the Sharpie marker nib itself doesn’t transmit bacteria, the outside of the marker still needs to be sterilized before using it again, like any other surgical instrument. To quell any lingering doubts, parent company Newell Rubbermaid did not fund the study.
Burton is presenting the work at the Infectious Diseases Society of America annual meeting in Washington, D.C., that begins Saturday.
The findings could save hospitals and patients some bucks — maybe thousands a year. And in these days of high healthcare costs, every little bit helps.
Says Forgie, "It’s such a funny, simple little study, but it seems to make a big difference."
-- Jeannine Stein
Photo credit: Bill Waugh / AP