VA Health Care:

Weaknesses in Policies and Oversight Governing Medical Equipment Pose Risks to Veterans' Safety

GAO-11-591T: Published: May 3, 2011. Publicly Released: May 3, 2011.

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Randall B. Williamson
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This testimony discusses patient safety incidents at Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) medical centers and potential strategies to address the underlying causes of those incidents. VA operates one of the largest integrated health care delivery systems in the United States, providing care to over 5.5 million veterans annually. Organized into 21 Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISN), VA's health care system includes 153 VA medical centers (VAMC) nationwide that offer a variety of outpatient, residential, and inpatient services. In providing health care services to veterans, clinicians at VAMCs use reusable medical equipment (RME), which is designed to be reused for multiple patients and includes such equipment as endoscopes and some surgical and dental instruments. Because RME is used when providing care to multiple veterans, this equipment must be reprocessed--that is, cleaned and disinfected or sterilized--between uses. VA has established requirements for VAMCs to follow when reprocessing RME, which are designed, in part, to help ensure the safety of the veterans who receive care at VAMCs. This testimony, based on our May 2011 report, which is being released today, examines issues related to veterans' safety, including (1) selected reprocessing requirements established in VA policies, based on their relevance to patient safety incidents and (2) VA's oversight of VAMCs' compliance with these selected requirements.

In summary, we found that the VA reprocessing requirements we selected for review are inadequate to help ensure the safety of veterans who receive care at VAMCs. Although VA requires VAMCs to develop devicespecific training for staff on how to correctly reprocess RME, it has not specified the types of RME for which this training is required. Furthermore, VA has provided conflicting guidance to VAMCs on how to develop device-specific training on reprocessing RME. This lack of clarity may have contributed to delays in developing the required training. Without appropriate training on reprocessing, VAMC staff may not be reprocessing RME correctly, which poses potential risks to veterans' safety. VA headquarters officials told us that VA has plans to develop training for certain RME, but VA lacks a timeline for developing this training. We also found that despite changes to improve VA's oversight of VAMCs' compliance with selected reprocessing requirements, weaknesses still exist. These weaknesses render VA unable to systematically identify and address noncompliance with the requirements, which poses potential risks to the safety of veterans. Although VA headquarters receives information from the VISNs on any noncompliance they identify, as well as VAMCs' corrective action plans to address this noncompliance, VA headquarters does not analyze this information to inform its oversight. According to VA headquarters officials, VA intends to develop a plan for analyzing this information to systematically identify areas of noncompliance that occur frequently, pose high risks to veterans' safety, or have not been addressed across all VAMCs. To address the inadequacies we identified in selected VA reprocessing requirements, GAO recommends that VA develop and implement an approach for providing standardized training for reprocessing all critical and semi-critical RME to VAMCs and hold VAMCs accountable for implementing this training. To address the weaknesses in VA's oversight of VAMCs' compliance with selected requirements, GAO recommends that VA use information on noncompliance identified by the VISNs and information on VAMCs' corrective action plans to identify areas of noncompliance across all 153 VAMCs and take action to improve compliance in those areas.

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