new medical device designed to make abdominal surgery safer

Every year, millions of Americans will have to face the prospect of undergoing some sort of abdominal surgery. For some, the abdominal surgery will be an appendectomy, meaning a relatively routine and risk-free procedure. For others, the abdominal surgery will be to treat cancer or another grave medical condition, meaning a more complex and physically demanding procedure.

For many of these patients, however, the biggest health risk may not come from anything the surgeon does during the abdominal surgery, but rather what they do after the surgery is completed. Specifically, the surgeon may fail to close the incision properly, thereby heightening the risk of hernias, infections, and other serious complications.

“Surgeons spend a lot of time doing their procedure — they get tired, they have to go to the bathroom, their next procedure’s coming up — so the final step of suturing is often hurried,” said one medical device expert. “It’s like tripping at the finish line. You’ve done all this surgery, and the suturing is what sends them back to the hospital.”

Interestingly, a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University has come up with a rather ingenious solution called FastStitch to help prevent this unacceptable medical mistake.

The disposable and relatively cheap ($30) device consists of a pair of bright blue handles that curve into a white clamp, giving it the appearance of a pair of cartoon pliers. However, the device itself is anything but cartoonish.

In order to use FastStitch, the surgeon closes the clamps on one layer of muscle and presses a spring-loaded button that releases a needle enclosed within the clamp. Essentially, the needle threads the suture through one side of the muscle and the surgeon then uses the device on the other side of the incision and repeats the process.

The primary advantage of FastStitch is that it makes sutures exactly 1 centimeter apart. This not only serves to eliminate human error, but also reduces the possibility of medical complications by evenly distributing muscle tension.

Currently, the Johns Hopkins biomedical engineering students behind FastStitch are seeking funding from venture capitalists for further research and to secure FDA approval.

There is no doubt that FastStitch is truly an incredible feat of engineering. However, it does raise the issue of why surgeons can’t simply take the time and care to ensure that their incisions are properly sutured. After all, haven’t they been doing these procedures for decades without the aid of such devices?

Source: The Baltimore Sun, “With FastStitch, Hopkins students see ‘future of suture’” Mary Clare Fischer, Oct. 30, 2012

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