Use Caution with Enhanced Medical Textiles

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Eric Frederick |

Columnist says key question is how patients benefit from technologies

ROANOKE, Va. — T his is a column I have been developing in my mind for many years but felt it would be best to write it and publish it after I had retired. During my 44-year career, I saw many wonderful advancements in our industry. I also saw a number of complete failures.  

Recently, there has been a big push for enhanced medical textile products that will help the patient recover faster and keep their immediate environment cleaner. There are currently three types of products on the market that I am aware of: those that use copper, those that use a blend of polyester and nylon, and those based on the use of silver oxide threads. 

There are strong marketing programs behind each product and obvious drawbacks to each one. I think the critical flaw in all these products is the application of the product broadly over a healthcare facility. A product that would be a great help to a patient undergoing bone marrow transplant surgery and is in strict reverse isolation may not be appropriate for a person who just had knee replacement surgery. 

This overuse of a potentially great product can possibly be explained by the need for manufacturers to quickly increase sales to a point that makes manufacture of the product cost-effective, overzealous administrative personnel looking for a new marketing advantage or just the natural spread of the latest technology through a healthcare facility.

Several studies have been under way for some time now to try and prove the efficacy of these products. The difficulty of conducting high-quality clinical trials creates a roadblock to many of these studies. 

The need to account for the “Hawthorne Effect” is another challenge. For those of you not familiar with this, it basically states that whatever you focus attention on, conducting a study will naturally result in improved results; the increased attention to following procedures during a study will create, in and of itself, an improved result. 

So, what are some of the reasons that this new generation of medical textiles might not be a good fit on a house-wide basis? The first and most obvious consideration is cost. Why would you stop buying sheets for $4.25 each and start buying them for more than $20? 

To be fair, I do not have exact pricing on several of the products because the companies refused to share that data with me until after the study. But there are very few secrets in the laundry industry.

The second major problem is in processing the new material. Each new medical textile needs processing that requires changes from the normal textile products in the laundry. In the case of polyester/nylon medical linens, they are best processed in a washer-extractor, tumble-dried and hand-folded. Linens that use copper must be batch-washed together and not left in a damp state overnight. This type has also been known to increase the amount of copper found in the laundry discharge water.

Another potential problem is the look or feel of the product. Polyester/nylon linens have a slick feel to them and have carbon threads woven into them to help control static electricity. It does not feel or look like a traditional sheet. Copper-using products start out as a light orangish color, but after a few washings quickly become a disgusting gray color. The color variance, which is obvious based on the age of the linen, can be very off-putting to nursing staff and patients. 

The key question to me has always been how patients would truly benefit from these types of technologies and which textile items should be in the product line. I will leave the decisions of which patients should get these products up to the medical professionals, but would recommend that only those items that have constant and direct contact with the patient be considered for use. 

As the cost of healthcare continues to climb, it is incumbent upon healthcare professionals at every level to advocate for the wise use of medical technology, including advanced medical textile products.

About the author

Eric Frederick

Eric Frederick served 44 years in laundry management before retiring and remains active in the industry as a laundry operations consultant. You can contact him by e-mail at elfrederick@cox.net or by phone at 540-520-6288.

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