Ultrasound probes: Cross Contamination

I am a germaphobe.  Even as a child my earliest memories were coming inside from play and asking permission to take another bath because I had touched something.  Interesting considering I grew up on a farm, helped with the garden, fed animals, and even mowed the lawn.  But there are very few pictures of me with dirt or mud on me because I always wanted it off.

I have never had a problem touching patients though because I always have gloves on hand.  It didn’t take long to find out I have a latex allergy, but thank goodness that was fixed soon.  Working in ultrasound I have always taken care to ensure my probes are cleaned after every single patient.  But guess what?  Research now shows that the probes are not cleaned as good as we thought they were!  What a wake-up call!

A recent article in Infection Control Today highlights the risk of transferring germs from patient to patient through reusable medical devices, and the ultrasound probe is at the top of the list.  When I first started reading it I thought it was going to talk about the endovaginal probes used and how they were cleaned.  A study released in 2016 by the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy concluded that our current disinfectant (glutaraldehyde and ortho-phthalaldehydy) does not effectively eliminate human papillomavirus (HPV).  But that isn’t the major concern today.

New disinfectant agents and procedures have been introduced to effectively kill HPV, and most laboratories are using them for their endovaginal and other intra-cavity probes.  But the most recent findings indicate there are still transmission concerns with probes never used inside the body.  Ultrasound is the most clinically used modality in the US with applications in radiology, cardiology, endocrinology and women’s health.  It’s the procedures used on intact or non-intact skin and the gel used for the ultrasound transmissions that are the culprits for passing along those germs.

I can count numerous times in my scanning career when I had patients back-to-back for ultrasound procedures and the same probe used on each of them.  I have always made the effort to clean the probe between each patient, but did I use the magic agents available now?  Of course not.  And what about those facilities where they don’t get evaluated by the Joint Commission or other agency?  If you read the statistics I have seen about the transmission of healthcare associated infection (HAI) rates you might become a germaphobe too!  It’s time for us all to wake up and make sure our patients don’t get what the patient before them left on the probe.


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