When patients are being prepared for surgery, the last thing on their mind is the risk of a fire in the operating room.
At MD Anderson − and a small, but increasing number of institutions nationwide − patients should know that there are people like Charles Cowles, M.D., who think about safety issues such as operating room fires every day, and dedicate themselves to making them an even rarer occurrence than they already are.
Cowles is chief safety officer for MD Anderson's Perioperative Enterprise and an anesthesiologist. As a former firefighter and paramedic with the Beaumont, Texas Fire Department for 14 years, Cowles brings a unique perspective to the role.
Cowles reports that there are roughly 550-650 surgical fires nationwide annually, many which result in severe burns, disfigurement or death. Most patients are unaware of the risks and many surgeons and nurses are not formally trained in handling a fire emergency, he says, but the good news is that the issue is gaining attention nationally.
Today, as National Fire Prevention Week winds down, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is announcing a new initiative to reduce the risk of fire in the operating rooms.
All this week Cowles and his team have been giving training sessions, running drills and calling attention to the risks of fire in an OR. He says the operating rooms host components of the "fire triangle" that can spark surgical fires any time these elements are present. They include:
- Ignition source (laser or cautery device)
- Fuel source (surgical drapes, alcohol-based skin preps)
- Oxidizers (oxygen, nitrous oxide)
Removing any of these elements eliminates the risk of fire in the operating room.
Cowles reminds patients that the risk of fire is rare but encourages them to be aware of the risk and ask questions of their doctor, including:
- Am I having the type of surgery that puts me at risk for surgical fires?
- If so, what are you doing to prevent it from happening?
- If I am getting oxygen, is it absolutely necessary?
- What is the safest place for my procedure:the operating room or a doctor's office?
- What risks are involved in this procedure?
For more on preventing operating room fires, visit the Emergency Care Research Institute.
Watch a video on surgical fire prevention by the Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF).A free DVD of the online video can be requested through the organization.