How Medical Supply Behemoths Hold Back Progress

Engineer invents better syringe after seeing contaminated needle infect doctor with AIDS. Everybody loves it. Why don't we have them today?

It took four years and more than 150 design permutations, but Shaw finally came up with a crude prototype and found a local physician to test it on him—an event Shaw’s wife documented with a shaky handheld camcorder. In the video, the doctor holds up a saline-filled syringe about the size of a kielbasa sausage. Then he jabs the needle into Shaw’s arm and pauses for a second before pushing in the plunger. First the saline empties, and then the needle snaps back into the barrel with a pop.

Shaw had just invented the first retractable syringe, a fact that drew the attention of public health officials. In 1993, the National Institutes of Health gave him a $600,000 grant to shrink it down to the size of an ordinary hypodermic and produce 50,000 of them for clinical trials. Shaw was now able to bring on a team of engineers and product designers, and turn a cinderblock bay adjoining the old bicycle shop into a clean room. By the mid-1990s, he had the final design in hand.

In 1996, Shaw returned to Presbyterian to conduct a final round of clinical trials. The nurses who took part gave his syringe uniformly high marks (though some complained in the follow-up survey that the packaging was hard to open and that the air bubbles were difficult to get out), and Presbyterian’s top medical brass was clamoring to get it into the supply rooms. Edward Goodman, the hospital’s director of infection control, wrote a letter to the purchasing department, saying Shaw’s product was “essential to the safety and health of our employees, staff and patients.” But Shaw soon learned that the enthusiasm of health care workers was not enough to gain him entrée; the hospital initially promised him a contract, only to back out three months later. Though he didn’t realize it at the time, Shaw had just stumbled into the path of a juggernaut.

From the Washington Monthly via Give Me Something to Read, an awesome collection of the best current magazine articles around.