Medical batteries: When to throw away?

2013-11-03T13:41:00Z Medical batteries: When to throw away?Aubrey Pringle Medill News Service nwitimes.com
November 03, 2013 1:41 pm  • 

Modern hospitals run on battery power. David Marlow has been a biomedical technician for 35 years, and batteries have become a major part of his life.

“They’re in everything,” he said. “I mean, they’re in the beds even.”

The hospital where he works, University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, uses thousands of batteries on any given day to keep its medical devices running – everything from scales and thermometers to more advanced equipment such as life-support machines. At U of M Heath System, batteries range from 30-cent AA’s in doctor pagers to $1,000-dollar lithium ion batteries used to run a life-support device, Marlow said.

Keeping track of so many batteries used for an array of functions is not easy, and the job falls to biomedical technicians like Marlow.

The Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation identifies battery management as one of the top 10 challenges for hospital’s biomedical departments. Part of the problem is the fact that Marlow has a lot of other duties on his plate.

“I’m testing batteries all the time,” Marlow said. “But it’s not the main part of my job.”

The Food and Drug Administration held a two-day workshop this week in Silver Spring, Md., to address challenges associated with battery-powered medical devices. In addition to charging problems and concerns about power outages, experts agreed that one of the biggest issues is determining when to throw a battery away.

Bruce Adams, vice president of sales at CADEX battery charger test equipment manufacturer, speaks at the FDA workshop.

Bruce Adams, vice president of sales at CADEX battery charger and test equipment manufacturer, speaks at the FDA workshop Wednesday. (Aubrey Pringle/MNS)

On one hand, hospitals want to mitigate risk of a battery dying, so it is better to err on the side of caution and throw batteries out sooner rather than later. On the other hand, batteries are expensive and it is wasteful to dispose of them too soon.

“Health care in the U.S. is a cost-driven enterprise,” said Bruce Adams, vice president of sales at CADEX, a company that makes battery chargers and test equipment. “There’s no reason to put it in the recycling bin before you have to.”

Some hospitals say they lack the resources to do regular battery checks, so they stick to the ‘two-year rule’ and throw out all batteries after two years, regardless of the size, type and amount of use.

Adams said it is best practice for an engineer to test medical device batteries every few months. This method is safer and less wasteful, he said. Proper disposal or recycling methods can also vary from battery to battery.

David Marlow agreed that a medical device battery should be used for as long as it is in good condition.

“The battery should never fail the user,” Marlow said. “But why throw away a good battery if you know it’s going to last five years?”

There is currently no requirement or standard for testing medical device batteries.

Vlady Rozenbaum has used a battery-powered oxygen device at home for six years, and while he appreciates the portability that it allows, he is always concerned about the batteries.

“You never know when it’s going to fail,” Rozenbaum said.

At the FDA workshop, medical device producers, battery manufacturers and hospital technology management workers joined forces with researchers and government groups to discuss possible solutions.

One idea was to require such devices to provide a label with clear, specific, graphic instructions for the battery. This would aid hospital workers as well as those using the devices at home.

Experts across the board said that creating a set of standards and testing requirements for battery-powered medical devices would go a long way toward solving problems. The FDA and the Association for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation would likely work together to create such standards.

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