An article in the New York Times brings up a surprising realization. Surgeons and their teams are not tested for blood borne viruses. And those who have blood borne viruses are not prohibited from practicing medicine.

The article tells of two people from Long Island who met in a support group for people with Hepatitis C. The two patients realized they both had become infected after open-heart surgery – by the same surgeon! Investigators discovered the surgeon, Dr. Michael Hall, was infected and was the source of the infections in these two patients, and at least one other. Dr. Hall was never found legally liable and he continues to perform open heart surgeries. His attorney stated “he did absolutely nothing wrong and operated in a perfectly reasonable manner.”

The problem arises when the surgeon, or a patient, has a blood borne virus. Doctors often cut or nick themselves, and if it happens while the doctor’s hands are inside the patient’s body, both parties are at risk of picking up viruses from the other.

There are no procedures in place to protect patients, like there are in place to protect health care workers. If a health care worker in exposed to a patient’s blood, they are required to report it and the patient then must be tested for viruses. However, a patient may never know they were exposed to the surgeon’s blood, since they are under anesthesia. You should not put off any important procedures due to the fear of contracting a virus, but you should definitely ask your surgeon if they are infected with any blood borne viruses such as hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV.

However, it is more likely than not that your surgeon will reply “I don’t know” because they have not been tested and they are not required to be tested. Janine Jagger, director of the International Health Care Worker Safety Center at the University of Virginia and her colleagues are calling for testing physicians before they begin residencies in high-risk specialties, and for informing patients when they have been exposed to health care worker’s blood.

I think testing and reporting this information is a great idea, don’t you?

Bo Frith