Think twice before buying from auctions

For me, it is a liability issue’

When considering purchasing items from on-line auctions, buyer beware, says Deb Ulmer, MSN, RN, nurse administrator at Lake Mary (FL) Surgery Center.

"I prefer to have a warranty on refurbished items and be able to put a face to the product," she says. "For me, it is a liability issue."

Indeed, some health care providers have found themselves involved with legal issues when purchasing on-line. A medical clinic in Arizona bought a pacemaker on eBay and implanted it in a patient. It later was determined that the pacemaker had been stolen.1

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) offers the following consumer warning:

"Buying on-line offers privacy, convenience, and potential cost savings, but personal data given by the consumer can be misused by unscrupulous dealers. While the Internet offers many quality medical devices from legitimate sites, it also offers medical devices that don’t work and some that may even harm you or your family. Some web sites sell medical devices for unapproved uses, or they sell medical devices that have not been cleared or approved by FDA. Other web sites sell prescription medical devices without asking for a prescription. Some foreign web sites sell medical devices to customers in the United States where the medical devices have not been cleared or approved for sale."2

Generally, it’s not a good idea to buy items at an on-line auction, says Jim Keller, vice president of health technology evaluation and safety at ECRI, a nonprofit health services research agency in Plymouth Meeting, PA. "If you take a step back, you realize that there aren’t the same levels of controls, assuming it’s not a legitimate manufacturer selling on eBay," he says. "Individuals [who sell on-line] really are the largest concern."

There are a "whole range of risks," he warns. For example, once single-use devices are shipped from manufacturers, how can you be sure how they were handled and resterilized? With individuals, what kinds of controls are in place? If the item is used, what kind of condition is it in? What kind of guarantee of condition are you receiving, and who will provide support once you receive the item? Should a problem come up with device after it’s provided to you, how to you learn about product warnings? "You won’t be informed of that," Keller warns.

For used items, you don’t know what type of sterilization and refurbishments have been done, he points out. And items advertised as new aren’t risk-free, he advises. For example, ask if you will receive the training materials, product literature, and warranties, Keller says. Also, you probably won’t be alerted to recall notices, he adds.

Even some reprocessors are shying away from on-line auctions. One did a three-month experiment selling devices such as pulse oximeter sensors through eBay in 2004. ClearMedical of Bellevue, WA, found that there was demand, but in general, hospitals don’t prefer to order their routine types of devices on the Internet, says Mike Blume, vice president of sales for ClearMedical. "Calling the vendor directly or the distributor is where 99% of the activity is," he adds.

While he says that on-line selling doesn’t make sense for his company now, there may be other useful purposes. "eBay is great for hospitals to sell their equipment, and it’s a great place for dealers to sell their equipment," he says.


  1. Klein A. Used medical devices being sold on eBay. Washington Post. Dec. 22, 2005:D01. Accessed at
  2. Center for Devices and Radiological Health. Buying medical devices online. Accessed at: