Feds to start first real-time tracking of nation’s blood supply
WASHINGTON (AP) – For the first time, the government is starting a day-to-day tracking system to monitor the nation’s blood supply and sound an alarm when shortages loom.
It comes none too soon: A tight blood supply, once a problem only around holidays, has become a year-round crisis for many parts of the country. It may worsen next month when many longtime donors are turned away as a precaution against mad cow disease – and as hospitals grapple with sharp increases in the price of blood.
”The shortage thing is just starting. It’s going to get worse,” says Tom Wadsworth of Fletcher Allen Health Care, Vermont’s largest hospital.
”We may find ourselves back in the pre-1970s days where if we’re doing an operation, we have to check the blood bank first and make sure something’s in the refrigerators,” adds Dr. Christopher Lowell, Massachusetts General Hospital’s transfusion director.
In the last year, repeated shortages have forced hospitals from New York to California to postpone elective surgeries and issue emergency calls for donations. Last month, supplies in part of Illinois reached their lowest point in eight years. Los Angeles blood banks are debating if donors should be paid. And the government is considering a ban on blood imported from Europe, a move that could cut New York City’s blood supply by a third.
In 1999, the latest figures available, Americans donated 13.6 million usable units of blood, and 12.4 million units were transfused, says the National Blood Data Resource Center. Because donated blood lasts only a few weeks and demand has risen steadily for a decade, that’s too small a margin for comfort.
No one knows just how tight today’s supply is because there has been no real-time monitoring – until now.
The Department of Health and Human Services is signing up 29 hospitals around the country to report every day how much blood they have in stock and how much they used in the preceding 24 hours.
Consider these hospitals sentinels. Their information will be posted on a public Internet site sometime this fall, providing a snapshot of how much blood is available day-to-day in different regions.
”That will be the earliest warning when we’re heading for a serious problem,” explains Dr. Gerald Sandler, transfusion chief at Georgetown University Hospital, one of the participants.
Say supplies dip in Atlanta and Miami. Blood banks could check whether it’s a temporary problem – maybe there were a lot of car crashes over a weekend – or if a real shortage is brewing in the Southeast, and adjust blood drives or shipments accordingly.
The tracking begins at a crucial time, as hospitals are particularly fearful of more shortages next month.
That’s when the American Red Cross is set to turn away thousands of donors who spent a cumulative time of three months in Britain since 1980, or six months anywhere in Europe. It’s a precaution against the theoretical risk that the human version of mad cow disease might be transmitted by donors exposed to infected beef overseas. Experts predict it could cut blood donors by 9 percent. So the Red Cross is writing tens of thousands of donors, urging the less traveled to give blood more often.
Even as supply concerns mount, hospitals are struggling to pay more for blood as the Red Cross raised prices by 10 percent to 35 percent. At Wadsworth’s Vermont hospital, for example, costs rose from $124 per unit of blood to $182. Insurance doesn’t directly reimburse hospitals for blood, so Wadsworth anticipates spending an extra $750,000 a year.
Pricey blood has many hospitals considering starting their own in-house blood bank like the one that supplies half of Massachusetts General’s supply. Vermont’s 14 hospitals are discussing trying that or importing blood from a Red Cross competitor outside the state. Other hospitals are considering trying to save and recycle patients’ own blood to reduce surgical transfusions.
Red Cross director Bernadine Healy says the price increase pays for numerous new safety tests and procedures performed on blood, many that blood banks began years ago without passing on the cost. But many hospitals argue the charges are too high, saying the Red Cross holds a monopoly in parts of the country where independent blood banks might charge less.
Still, it is getting more expensive to process blood no matter who does the work. Expect federal blood advisers soon to tackle whether the government should do more to pay for it.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Lauran Neergaard covers health and medicine for The Associated Press in Washington.
On the Net:
Department of Health and Human Services: http://www.os.dhhs.gov/
American Red Cross: http://www.redcross.org/
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