The Real Cost of Needle-Stick Exposures

You probably already appreciate how difficult it can be to work as a doctor, nurse or even a hospital technician. After all, patients make up a tough crowd, especially when they’re suffering.

What you might not know is, in addition to the traumas those in the medical field deal with on a daily basis, they also expose themselves to their own injuries.

The risk of accidental needle sticks has always been a concern for medical professionals. In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed a law, called the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act, to set requirements for safer equipment – and better implementation of devices – to mitigate this risk.

Despite the new, more stringent requirements, these potential needle-stick exposures – as well as other potential hazards, such as surgical plume – remain a serious problem for health care workers.


What Are the Stats?

After the Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act was put into law, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) followed suit by making safety modifications to its Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, which went into effect in 2001.

Recently, OSHA published new statistics on needle-stick exposures. According to the agency, at least 5.6 million health care workers are at risk of these needle sticks, which can result in the contraction of bloodborne pathogens such as the hepatitis B virus (HPV), hepatitis C virus (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

In fact, OSHA reports that medical professionals in hospitals sustain approximately 385,000 accidental needle sticks every year – which equals about 1,000 injuries from sharps every day.

If you consider outpatient clinics and other medical facilities in addition to hospitals, the numbers soar to a combined total of 600,000 to 800,000 needle-stick injuries.

How Do the Sticks Occur?

Reports show that the majority of needle-stick injuries afflict nurses, mostly in operating or recovery rooms, during surgeries or with hollow-bore needles. In fact, hollow-bore needles, the ones inserted into veins or arteries, account for 56 percent of accidental sticks and have the highest risk of HIV transmission.

Specifically, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), six sharp devices are primarily responsible for accidental sticks: syringes, suture needles, winged steel needles, scalpel needles, intravenous catheters and phlebotomy needles.

Usually, the occupational needle-stick exposures occur either during needle use or prior to disposal, although one-third of injuries do take place during disposal.

Sometimes, the sticks are attributable to mistakes on the health care worker’s part, including improper passing of the sharps, transferring of the needles, recapping or decontamination of used equipment.

A person holding three syringe needles.

What’s the Cost?

The costs of needle-stick exposures are more than simply the risk of disease transmission.

According to Safe in Common (SIC), a nonprofit organization that focuses on health care, the approximately 1,000 accidental needle sticks per day add up to $1 billion in direct costs annually.

The CDC estimates that the initial treatment and follow-up associated with needle-stick exposures typically amount to $500 to $3,000 – but that’s just in the beginning.

SIC estimates the annual cost of these accidental injuries to be $3,042 per victim each year. That’s because the laboratory tests and follow-ups can rack up quite the bill.

The costs also go beyond the monetary value. Medical professionals exposed to a needle have to worry about the indirect costs, too.

First, there’s the emotional cost. An accidental exposure can, understandably, induce anxiety. On top of that, nurses and other health care workers face loss of time and potentially the loss of their hospital jobs if they do become infected with a contagious pathogen.

On top of that, litigation and disability applications require extra money and time to file paperwork – not to mention fight in court.

What’s the Solution?

One of the biggest obstacles in the fight against needle-exposure injuries involves the tracking of these incidents. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), about half go unreported, especially in the operating room.

Hope is not all lost. The technology is not available yet, but reports say federal agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the CDC and OSHA have recently recommended new medical equipment with upgraded safety features – lowering the risk of disease-transmitting sticks – for health care professionals.

In fact, a 2014 study of 61 hospitals in France showed that needle equipment with automatic and passive safety features was 10 times better at reducing accidental needle-stick exposure compared to manual devices.

Newer, more effective medications also exist in the event of a needle stick. For example, with post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), a person takes an antiretroviral drug within 72 hours of sharps exposure to reduce the risk of HIV infection. Studies show it can minimize the risk of infection to the virus by as much as 79 percent.

The bottom line: Needle-stick exposure is still a very serious problem, and it affects health care workers every day. However, with nonprofits like SIC and the recommendations of federal health agencies, there may be light at the end of the tunnel for those in the hospital business.

After all, needles can be scary – even for the people licensed to inject them.

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