The theft of imaging equipment from three Chicago-area hospitals last month has law enforcement authorities wondering if the same criminal rings that have targeted hospitals in Florida and Texas have moved to the Midwest.
In a matter of days, thieves made off with $110,000 worth of sophisticated ultrasound equipment from Rush Oak Park (Ill.) Hospital and $60,000 worth of similar gear from the University of Illinois Medical Center at Chicago. The same week, a $45,000 portable ultrasound machine disappeared from Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill., Crain's Chicago Business, a sister publication of Modern Healthcare, reports.
"I can't imagine the average criminal stealing such high-end equipment unless they had somewhere to dispose of it," says Oak Park Police Detective Wayne Banta, who notes parallels between the thefts and a series of similar cases in Texas and Florida.
Spokespersons for Loyola and Rush Oak Park say officials at those hospitals believe the thefts of the ultrasound equipment may be connected. A spokesman for the University of Illinois hospital isn't so sure. "As far as we know, this is an isolated incident," he says.
Law enforcement and hospital security officials don't know much about the size or location of the black market for stolen hospital equipment. Some think the equipment goes overseas, while others think local doctors and medical clinics buy it.
What's clear is that demand for high-tech medical gear is moving beyond hospitals, which once performed most sophisticated diagnostic procedures, to an array of clinics and medical practices that might look for ways to save money on the devices. That trend has contributed to the growth of a secondary market in used medical equipment, where an ultrasound probe that costs $20,000 new might sell for half that.
A prosecutor in Florida, who has charged two men with stealing more than $100,000 worth of heart monitors and ultrasound equipment from two hospitals there this summer, says she sees evidence of an organized black market. Thieves know what brands and models are desirable, says Ann Marie Smith, the assistant statewide prosecutor in Florida.
"For the most part, they end up with fences who sell them on the black market to medical facilities overseas," Smith says.
A case for a private eye
Police in Owensboro, Ky., aren't just theorizing about a hospital theft there. They've nabbed one Melissa Wink as the alleged culprit in the case of the missing eyes.
She was charged with breaking into a glass case at Owensboro Medical Health System on Christmas Eve and stealing a collection of 50 antique glass eyes.
Hospital officials say local resident Wink was nabbed on Jan. 2 after photographs obtained from a security camera were released to the public. Cameras had kept an "unblinking eye on that corridor," housing five cases of memorabilia and artifacts donated by Barney Elliott, a physician at an Owensboro outpatient center.
If the aptly named Wink is convicted, perhaps she might explain why she plucked the glass peepers-worth a paltry $2,500-from a case with far more valuable collectibles, including vintage stethoscopes and apothecary jars worth a total of $100,000.
The detective handling the case says Wink, 36, who admitted to police she has a "problem of collecting things," planned to return the stolen eyeballs because of extensive media coverage.
Since Outliers first reported the publication of a new consumer health book, What to Ask the Doc: The Questions to Ask to Get the Answers You Need (Oct. 6, 2003, p. 36), the Chicago nurse/authors of the self-published guide have been busy promoting it. Now the self-published book that began as a water cooler conversation among three nurses has gone national.
The discount drugstore chain CVS Corp. has agreed to begin stocking the 204-page book at its 3,000 stores in February. And last week, two of the authors-Linda Burke, an intensive-care nurse at 700-bed Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and Margaret Fitzpatrick, an ICU nurse at 676-bed Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, Ill.-were interviewed by Katie Couric on NBC's "Today" show.
The patient-friendly book contains a number of key questions to ask physicians in diverse patient-care settings, from emergency rooms and routine checkups to hospice and long-term care. Burke says the media appearances had not yet translated to spikes in sales. "But we're hoping the national exposure on the `Today' show helps."
DIMA vs. MMA
There's a new acronym in the healthcare universe. Or maybe several.
The CMS confirmed to Outliers last week that it has settled on MMA as the working abbreviation for the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act, signed into law last month by President Bush. Some at the agency preferred DIMA, but that was abandoned because it "sounds like a disease," a spokesman says.
If every word in the name of the legislation were represented in a new acronym, it would be MPDIMA. A participant at a recent Medicare forum asked if there was a song about a girl from there, but Outliers must point out that that's the "Girl from Ipanema."
In any case, get used to MMA and expect to hear it-a lot.