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Close-up: Bill Blair

RF Surgical System aims to make surgery safer

For some patients, the end of a surgery can be just the beginning of serious complications. One San Diego company is trying to help.

RF Surgical Systems has created a tool for helping surgeons and nurses detect whether or not medical devices like gauze and sponges have been left behind inside a patient. According to the company's chief technology officer, this happens far more often than people think.

"Since we've deployed, we've had a lot of successes," said Bill Blair, chief technology officer for RF Surgical System. "We've had ... tens of cases of stopping someone from having a retained element in their body. It's a really nice feeling."

The "RF" in RF Surgical stands for radio frequency, a nod to how the product works. Blair, an engineer by training, developed with his business partner a small silicon device not much bigger than a grain of rice that is sewn into the gauze doctors use during surgery.

After surgery, a doctor or nurse can simply wave the wand, which looks a little like a tennis racket frame, over and around the patient. If a piece of gauze is still inside, it will beep.

Right now, the RF Surgical Detection System acts as a supplement to the current policy of counting gauze, sponges and tools. While counting tells doctors that something is missing, it doesn't let them know if it's inside the patient or not. It could be in the trash, or there could be a miscount. The Detection System saves time.

It can also save the hospital money, since it's one more tool in the fight against malpractice suits.

"I don't think the goal is to run and say, 'We're here to stop you from having a suit,' said Blair. "I think the goal is to run in an say, 'We're here to stop you from having morbidity and mortality in your patients, and by the way, you won't have these types of suits.'"

Since the company launched in 2005, RF Surgical has its product in about 60 hospitals, where it has been used about 120,000 times. The device costs about $15 per use, according to Blair.

Maria Camilon, the operating room nurse manager at the University of California, San Diego's Thornton Hospital, has used the device as part of an ongoing trial there. The Daily Transcript spoke to Camilon after the first surgery, an abdominal reconstruction.

"So far so good. They liked it," she said of the surgeons and nurses who used the device.

Blair's wife is a doctor at Thornton, so RF Surgical asked some of the medical staff there for pointers while the device was being developed. Camilon said she had noticed that the wand was originally a little heavy, and too large for her hands. Since most nurses are women, as are some surgeons, she had suggested making it smaller.

"It was nice to see that now that I saw it, they did make those changes," she said.

Camilon said the device hasn't replaced counting, and likely won't, but it does help in locating where lost surgical items are. The only trouble she saw was that it somewhat too sensitive -- sometimes it would go off during surgery because someone placed a piece of gauze too close to it.

According to Blair, studies have shown that about 4 percent of surgeries in the United States leave something behind inside a patient, and he thinks it could be even higher. RF Surgical is in the midst of conducting its own study to get firm numbers.

"We have a very hard market to penetrate because we've got to ... teach surgeons about a problem they don't really believe they have," he said.

RF Surgical's headquarters are in Bellevue, Wash., but Blair heads up the research and development lab in Scripps Ranch. The company was the brainchild of Blair and Dr. Jeffrey Port, a thoracic surgeon Blair met while Port was doing his residency with Blair's wife, who is also a surgeon.

Blair and Port found a chief executive in Kevin Cosens, a Washington-based health care industry veteran. Since Cosens is based in Washington, but Blair and his wife didn't want to relocate, they divided the company between opposite ends of the West Coast. Port, who works as the company's chairman, lives in New York.

RF Surgical largely sells the device through distribution channels, packing it into the kits that medical companies sell for surgeries. There are few direct competitors, though there are companies that sell counting programs designed to make it easier and more effective to count instruments and gauze, which some hospitals prefer.

Eventually, Blair would like the company to expand into other uses, including putting silicon trackers in all surgical instruments. Right now, it's difficult to put a tag into a set of clamps, for example, because instruments go through a rigorous disinfecting process that could destroy it. Gauze and sponges aren't used again after one surgery.

Ultimately, Blair said he thinks his product has the potential to become the standard of care in hospitals around the country, and he was confident RF Surgical could continue to raise the funding it needs, even in this tough market.

"It's not a therapeutic, so it has a much shorter acceptance curve than a drug," he said. "We really just happen to be in the right place at the right time in terms of raising money."

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1 UserComments
Janice Johnson 10:21pm April 29, 2012

I think this a great idea. I would be interested in sales. Thank you Janice Johnson