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What is a Safety Scalpel?

By T. Broderick
Updated Feb 07, 2024
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A safety scalpel is a medical instrument used during surgery. Its purpose is no different than a normal scalpel, but these scalpels have the option of retracting or sheathing the blade when not in use. Though safety scalpels were once mainly disposable medical equipment, legislation prompted some manufacturers to produce models that surgeons can use multiple times. Though one would think that these scalpels would reduce the number of cutting accidents during surgery, some research has actually suggested the opposite.

There are two varieties of safety scalpels. The first are safety scalpels with retractable blades. These scalpels are nearly identical to box cutters; moving one's thumb over a slide can either extend or retract the blade. The second variety of safety scalpels has a sheath to cover the blade when not in use. Most sheaths are made from hard plastic or another disposable material.

As a safety scalpel offers the same utility to a surgeon as a traditional scalpel, manufacturers have adapted nearly every form of the traditional scalpel. As of 2011, it is possible for a surgeon to exclusively use safety scalpels in his or her operating room. Years ago, this idea would have been ridiculous from a financial standpoint. Safety scalpels were initially created to be disposable; some of their components were unable to withstand the pressure and heat of an autoclave, a medical device used to sterilize scalpels and other equipment. Though using a new safety scalpel for every surgery is costly, changes in regulations pertaining to medical safety standards in the United States has made safety scalpels much more popular with surgeons both in the US and abroad.

The Needlestick Safety and Prevention Act of 2000 requires that medical professionals take extra steps to minimize the risk of accidents involving sharps: scalpels, needles and other objects can transfer pathogens between doctor and patient. Safety scalpels fall under the category of safe devices; a surgeon must include a safety scalpel in his or her operating room. In response to this legislation, manufacturers of safety scalpels are attempting to lower costs through introducing models that have reusable handles.

Though a safety scalpel poses little risk when the blade is retracted or sheathed, the chance that a surgeon might cut him or herself during surgery does not change when the scalpel is in use. A 2005 study suggests that some surgeons have lost sight of this fact, believing the risk of accidental cutting is less when using a safety scalpel. Overconfidence has led to an overall increase of cutting accidents. Further research is necessary to determine whether this phenomenon is widespread.

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