Given the competitive nature of the UK rental market, the wisdom of investing a million pounds in a high-tech laundry facility could be questioned. However, Roy Dalby, CEO of Nottingham-based Society Linen is confident his new company Society Medical is on the right track.

By offering a rental service for reusable barrier gowns and drapes that conforms to the new European Directive on medical devices, he fills a valuable niche in the hospital rental market.

Infective agents

Operating gowns and drapes are used to prevent the transfer of infective agents from the surgical team to the patient and vice versa. Even so, the majority of post-operative surgical site infections are acquired during the operation with micro-organisms reaching the open wound from the theatre environment. Both gowns and drapes, single-use and reusables, are now the subject of the EU’s Medical Device Directive.

Society Medical is the first laundry in the UK to offer a rental service for reusable gowns and drapes made from Rotecno® Medical Fabric, a liquid repellent, non-linting, anti-static fabric, and Gore® Surgical Fabric, a fluid-proof, high-performance fabric suitable for long and liquid-intensive surgeries. Using state-of-the-art technology the plant meets the requirements of the Medical Device Directive 93/42/EEC (CE Marking), ISO EN46002 and ISO 9002.

Society Medical’s biggest competitor is not other national laundries but disposable theatre-products. The market is currently split 80% reusables, 20% disposables.

Quality Management System.

Dr S R Patel of Lojigma, the company supplying the gowns and drapes, said that reusable and disposable gowns and drapes are now medical devices and as such, must be CE marked to meet the European Directive which has been mandatory legislation for all EU member states since June 1998. As a consequence, manufacturers using the CE mark must demonstrate that their products comply with it.

Dr Patel also said that without doubt the current non-functioning products such as balloon cloth /polyester cotton gowns and drapes used in UK hospitals will not meet the essential requirements of the new European standard such as microbial resistance in wet and dry conditions, liquid resistance and linting properties.

Smooth interiors

The new facility has been built within Society Linen’s premises at Nottingham for a cost of £1 million plus. It comprises three Pharmagg washer-extractors, specially designed for washing surgical textiles, each taking a 60kg load but loaded at 45kg, through a 50 minute cycle. The smooth interiors of the washer drums guarantee no snagging of the micro-filament material. The wash is computer controlled to ensure thermal disinfection (71 degrees C for three minutes) and PH values are closely monitored and permanently recorded on a printout. Two Kent gas-fired dryers, three BMM Weston Autoclaves and a reverse osmosis water-treatment plant complete the installation.

To open the washers on the clean side, the operator needs to gain access through an air-lock to a cleanroom. Here, staff are dressed to much higher standards than theatre technicians with the room pressurised and chilled with filtered air.

As part of the strict quality control and traceability programme required by the health authorities, a computerised record is kept of each wash. Each garment has a life of between 80 to 100 reuses and is barcoded with both product supply and laundry process information. From the barcode, a complete history is available, from the material being woven, how many washes and repairs it has undergone, right through to which patient was in the theatre when the gown or drape was used.

Do it right

Society Medical’s manager, Alf Gillard has done a remarkable job in getting the plant built, commissioned and certified to such high standards in just twelve months. Having been the manager of a sterile services department for Kettering General, his knowledge of the business is extensive.

“I had a good idea what was needed and a visit to Rentex in Germany to see how they did it was helpful.

I put their experience together with my concept to produce the Nottingham facility” he said.

“It is all about quality and traceability. We are perhaps five years ahead of the market, a long-term investment but not a gamble. The service is needed now and our prices are no higher than any national laundry. On an old-for-new basis we could supply a 1000 gowns right now with full traceability. The cost is reasonable and dependent on the quantity ordered.” As with all new legislation, institutions are slow to change or are financially restrained. However, with health authorities increasingly under the threat of litigation from aggrieved patients it is unlikely an EU Directive will remain ignored for long.

“We have a CE marked product going through an accredited wash process that meets every relevant standard. We are now looking for customers who think quality is an issue.

I am very proud to be the boss of a project like this” said Alf Gillard.

“It took us six months to write our QA manuals. The air-conditioning system for the clean room is E-class which is way above the required standard. We use treated water from our own bore hole, put through a reverse osmosis unit that filters out salts and pathogens, for the final rinse. Couldn’t get any better than that, could you? All the equipment in the water treatment plant, the reverse osmosis units and steam generators, is duplicated, giving a 100 per cent redundancy. And through a computerised bar-coding system we have complete control and traceability throughout the process.”

Parent company

Society Medical is part of the Co-operative Cleaners group that turns over £14.5 million a year and includes Society Linen. With a history going back to 1920 the company operates eight general laundries. Its 17 retail Co-operative Wholesale Society shareholders elect Society Linen’s seven directors.

Chief executive Roy Dalby says that if Society Medical reaches the targets he has set for it he will set up similar facilities at strategic sites around the country.

”We have done our homework” he explained. “Rentex in Germany were particularly helpful in showing us how the EU legislation has affected the hospital-rental business.

“And the relationship formed with Lojigma, the company that supplies the gowns and drapes is also a great asset, and most important of all, we selected the right people. To get a project built to such high specifications in under a year is an amazing achievement, and all credit goes to Alf Gillard and his team.

“We now have a purpose-built cleanroom for the decontamination and sterilisation of reusable gowns and drapes here in Nottingham. Serving London or the North from here is not a problem, transport only amount to 5 or 6 percent of total costs and if things go well we will be opening at least three similar units.

“As for pay-back time, well, we are hoping it is as short as possible. We have built the best facility in Europe, it is now up to our sales people to sell it. It is not just the capital cost of the plant we need to recoup. We have made a large investment in the garments and drapes. It is an elaborate financial operation as well as a complex production process.”

No night shift

The staff of Society Medical are working a 39-hour week at present but will go to double shifts as the business picks up. Three-shift working is out of the question as the equipment needs to be maintained and tested to exceptionally high standards.

“European Directives will be taking effect within the next two years and during that time cotton products in the operating theatre will be gradually replaced by our micro-filament materials,” said Roy Dalby.

“ We have an existing customer base that is both large and varied. More than a third of our turnover comes from hospital contracts. The reputation that Society Linen has built over many years for service and value will stand the new venture in good stead. With Society Medical offering such a specialist service our customer base will be extended.”