A 2006 survey of hospitals found that 16 percent had experienced a feeding tube mix-up. Experts and standards groups have advocated since 1996 that tubes for different functions be made incompatible, just as different nozzles at gas stations prevent drivers from using the wrong fuel.
But action has been delayed by resistance from the medical-device industry and an approval process at the Food and Drug Administration that can discourage safety-related changes. Hospitals, tube manufacturers, regulators and standards groups all point fingers at one another to explain the delay. Hospitalized patients often have an array of clear plastic tubing sticking out of their bodies to deliver or extract medicine, nutrition, fluids, gases or blood to veins, arteries, stomachs, skin, lungs or bladders.
Much of the tubing is interchangeable, and with nurses connecting and disconnecting dozens each day, mix-ups happen, sometimes with deadly consequences.