The recent case of an NHS trust and the NHS Supplies Authority being listed as co-defendants in a case of latex allergy (OH, January News p4), has raised questions regarding the duty of care owed by suppliers of medical devices.
As a major supplier of medical gloves to NHS trusts, it is somewhat surprising that NHS Supplies has continued to offer powdered latex surgical and examination gloves for purchase.
This is especially important given that in June 1998 the Medical Devices Agency stated in its safety notice (SN9825) that NHS managers should ensure a policy is in place to address the purchase and use of medical gloves and provide a justification for their continued use.
It also reminded managers that buyers should take into account the level of extractable latex protein content. Most powdered latex gloves do have a higher protein content.
Given that the protein-level advice was available from supplies departments - presumably obtained from the NHS Supply Authority - begs us to ask what justification the NHS Supplies Authority had for continued sale of these products.
There is a wealth of knowledge available regarding the hazards of the use of powdered latex gloves, and many trusts have taken action to withdraw their use in the NHS. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that when an NHS Trust is accused of a breach of statutory duty, it should name the supplier as a co-defendant.
We should also question why Trusts are still able to obtain supplies of powdered latex gloves given that most manufacturers have ceased production of such products.
The NHS Supplies Authority must know that it has a duty, under the Health and Safety at Work Act, to supply articles and substances that are without risk to health and safety. I am sure the courts will pay particular attention to any relevant advice provided by the supplier in deciding whether it has complied to its duty of care.
This landmark case will no doubt have wider implications for suppliers of other healthcare products. This should ensure that in the future healthcare employees no longer have to make do with cheap, substandard medical devices, and encourage other users to seek redress through the courts.