Some South Florida hospitals are involuntarily being thrust into the international trade by thieves swiping high-tech medical equipment for sale on the black market in Latin and South America.
The problem has become so widespread that the FBI is reportedly investigating incidents at several Miami-area hospitals.
"There's a great demand for American know-how down in Latin America," says Ed Hopkins, an attorney with Miami-based Steel Hector & Davis who represents a handful of the hospitals that have lost $75,000 endoscopes and $4,000 blood oxygen meters to the thieves. "It's just like in the movies, where someone dresses up like a nurse or an orderly; except in this case they're walking out with equipment."
Almost all the equipment stolen -- including heart defibrillators, which can cost up to $16,000 apiece -- is portable.
"It's compact enough that it can be carried or rolled out," Hopkins says. "In a busy emergency room, you don't know the location of the equipment at all times. You can't bolt it to the floor."
Meanwhile, hospitals have been beefing up their security and encouraging staff to keep an eye out for suspicious characters.
The South Florida Hospital and Healthcare Association has formed a task force to get a handle on the problem and set up a phone network to track thefts.
Transplanted trouble. If companies are thinking about going into the international organ-selling business, they might want to hire some private investigators to do criminal background checks. And the gumshoes should check the organ donors closer than the companies.
Such a process might have helped Frankfurt, Germany-based Fresenius Medical Care, which withdrew in March from a 50-50 joint venture in a kidney dialysis center in Guangzhou, China, after discovering it may have unknowingly helped the Chinese military sell executed prisoners' organs. The joint venture had been with a military medical complex next to the dialysis center that had been selling kidneys from executed prisoners to wealthy foreigners in need of transplants. Fresenius' center was not directly involved in the transplants but served patients waiting for organs.
After an ABC News story last year raised similar questions about W.R. Grace & Co.'s joint venture with the Chinese, Fresenius conducted an internal investigation and finally agreed it couldn't say for sure the organs hadn't been from prisoners. Fresenius acquired its share in the center through its 1996 purchase of Waltham, Mass.-based National Medical Care, Grace's kidney dialysis unit.
Smart move. Soon, it seems, everybody will carry around all their vital data on computer bits in their wallets, so it's no surprise that healthcare is joining this movement.
"Smart cards" have been used in Canada and Europe for a number of applications, including healthcare. They carry medical histories and emergency information on microprocessor chips as thin as credit cards. Germany has mandated the use of the cards in healthcare for personal identification and insurance information since 1995, says Magruder Dent, marketing manager for GemPlus, a Gemenos, France-based provider of smart-card-based solutions. In France, which is in the process of implementing the cards nationwide, they include medical history and emergency information such as allergies, he adds.
Despite their popularity in Europe, smart cards are just beginning to appear in the U.S. Six providers from three western U.S. cities -- Bismarck, N.D.; Cheyenne, Wyo.; and Reno, Nev. -- are set to take part in a pilot project that uses a variation on the product.
The pilot project's Health Passport cards will carry the demographic and medical information of women and children participating in public health programs such as Medicaid. The data on the cards will include height, weight and immunization status and can be updated every time a person sees a provider, says Thomas Singer, director of research at the Western Governors' Association, the group sponsoring the project.
Soros' gift. After pledging $500 million over three years to public health programs in Russia (Nov. 3, p. 20), billionaire philanthropist George Soros is now footing the bill for a program in his own country.
After President Clinton's recent decision not to fund needle exchange programs, Soros offered $1 million in matching funds to support local needle exchange programs in the U.S., where 35% of all new HIV cases are due to drug injection with unclean syringes. Soros challenged individuals, private foundations and local governments to help stop the spread of HIV by supporting needle exchanges.
"Over half of all AIDS cases involving children are directly related to unclean syringes," Soros says. "It has been scientifically proven, and the federal government agrees, that making sterile syringes readily available to addicts reduces the spread of HIV and does not encourage drug use."
"The U.S. is virtually alone among advanced, industrialized nations in prohibiting the funding of needle exchange programs," says Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy research institute funded by Soros. "It is now up to individuals, philanthropic groups, and state and local governments to fill the void left by the federal government."
Needle exchange programs are supported by the American Medical Association, the American Nurses Association, the American Public Health Association, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Academy of Sciences, and other prestigious medical and public health organizations.
Solicitors. The Australians are coming.
One of that country's largest law firms is sending two partners to the U.S. in May and June to encourage American companies to invest in the healthcare industry of the land Down Under.
The firm, Clayton Utz, will target firms in San Francisco and Washington. It said the financial troubles in Asia make Australia a natural choice for American companies looking to invest abroad.
One of the partners, Maura McGill, says Australian governments cannot afford to provide the level of healthcare that some communities need and, because of budget constraints, could be exceptionally receptive to low-cost proposals from "proven American operators."