Forced-Air Blankets And Surgical Site Infections, Burns, And Failure

Hospitals have been using specialized medical devices known as "warming blankets" to combat hypothermia in patients during surgery since the 1980s -- and patients are ending up with life-threatening infections as a result. If you've had surgery and a forced-air warming blanket was used, this is what you should know.

What are medical forced-air warming blankets? There are several different varieties of warming blankets, but they are essentially disposable inflatable blankets that are filled by warm air which is forced into the blanket after passing through a 0.2-micron filter. By comparison, a red blood cell is about 5 microns across. The filter is designed to catch bacteria, which can range from 0.2-0.3 microns in size, but aren't entirely effective.

What are the dangers of using a forced-air warming blanket?

The problem is that the forced air blowers are picking up dirty air from underneath a patient's surgical drapings and off the floor. Some of that dirty air gets past the filter and blown directly on the surgical site. Additionally, hoses have been known to pull loose from the blankets while they are in operation. The risks to the patient are severe:

  • bacterial infections at the surgical site, including MRSA

  • failure of joint implants due to infection

  • burns from the forced air when the hose pulls loose

  • repeated surgical procedures to clean out the infection

  • repeated hospitalizations to combat the infections

  • amputation of limbs and death when the infection can't be controlled

In addition to throwing dirty air directly on wounds, studies indicate that forced air blankets disrupt the laminar air flow of the operating rooms themselves. Laminar air flow is a system of circulating highly-filtered air in parallel planes in order to reduce contamination. It's used extensively in hospitals to try to reduce surgical site infections. The heat from forced-air blankets causes contaminated air to rise above the surgical table and then settle back down, on the patient, as the air cools.

What other proof is there that forced-air blankets are dangerous?

The inventor of one commonly used version of a forced-air blanket, Dr. Scott Augustine, now says his device shouldn't be used in patients who receive implants because of the increased risk of bacterial infections.

Studies as far back as 2009 began questioning the safety of forced-air blankets. As recently as 2014, a report in the Journal of Hospital Infection referenced 10 different studies indicating that forced-air blankets contaminate the operating field. Despite this, many hospitals continue to use forced-air blankets during implant procedures.

If you have had an implant procedure of any type and have suffered burns or infections that you suspect may have had to do with a forced-air warmer, consult an law firm like Vick & Glantz, LLP.