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MEDICAL THEFTS

“Endoscopy thieves” targeting equipment from hospitals already feeling the pinch

Police suspect highly organized gang of stealing equipment worth hundreds of thousands

As if spending cuts in the name of austerity were not hampering the work of Spain’s healthcare centers enough, a gang of hospital thieves is striking where it really hurts across the northeast of the country. Medical equipment costing hundreds of thousands of euros has been stolen from nine hospitals across Catalonia, Aragon and Valencia in what the police believe are calculated and targeted robberies.

At least five medical centers in Catalonia, two in the Valencia area and another pair in Aragon have suffered thefts in the last few months. In almost all cases, the stolen equipment was that used in endoscopies. So far there have been no arrests, although in one of the crimes, police suspect two men caught on security cameras wearing suits and carrying briefcases. Catalonia’s Mossos d’Esquadra force is investigating connections between the crimes.

All the thefts follow a similar pattern. The perpetrators apparently know what they are after, targeting specific equipment and leaving behind other material, which sometimes includes even more expensive items. The Mossos suspect the thieves are deliberately targeting medical equipment they know they can sell in what must be a highly specialized black market.

The endoscopies equipment — colonoscopes for examining the colon and gastroscopes for examining the upper gastrointestinal tract — consists of a flexible probe with fiber optics. This is connected to a tower with a processor and a monitor for observing the images. While the endoscopes can cost between 24,000 and 32,000 euros, these processor towers are worth up to 60,000 euros.

“Limited budget”

At the start of August, only six days apart, thieves targeted the Santa Caterina Hospital in Salt, Girona, and the Arnau de Vilanova hospital in Lleida, both in the Catalonia region. In the first case, five gastroscopes and three bronchoscopes worth an estimated 50,000 euros were taken. Four planned procedures had to be canceled as a result. The attack on the second hospital took place in the early hours of August 12 when a dozen pieces of endoscopy equipment and another item used to examine the pancreas were stolen. The items are valued at 400,000 euros.

“They are expensive pieces of apparatus and, at a time when the budget is very limited, we do not know how we will replace them,” said Anna Ariño, the CCOO union delegate at the Lleida hospital.

Last Tuesday it would appear that the gang pulled off its latest sting when seven items of endoscopy equipment worth 150,000 euros was stolen from the Santa Tecla Hospital in Tarragona. The thieves entered the endoscopy room between 5pm and 6pm, shortly after the end of surgical procedures that day.

The hospital’s director, Xavier Oliach, said they must have “analyzed” the center’s routines and that they “knew what they were looking for.”

The manager of a medical equipment manufacturing company, who does not want to be named, is convinced the thieves have taken the items abroad. “All the equipment has a serial number which would allow us to find them if they were in another hospital in Spain,” he explained. He thinks security measures in many public hospitals are not sufficiently strict, considering the cost of the equipment used there.

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