Health Advice



Why the war in Ukraine might make root canals more difficult

Darius Tahir, Kaiser Health News on

Published in Health & Fitness

Russia’s assault on Ukraine is being felt worldwide, and the U.S. health care system is not immune.

Both Russia and Ukraine are powerhouses in supplying certain commodities — in this case, ammonium nitrate and natural gas. These commodities, after being refined, can produce two gases crucial for the health care system: nitrous oxide, popularly known as laughing gas, and helium. They are used in millions of procedures each day. And crimped supplies could make every root canal that much more painful and every MRI scan that much pricier.

The disruption also represents more turbulence for the U.S. health care system’s supply chain.

“The shortages we are experiencing now have been years in the making and are therefore a surprise to no one,” said Wally Hopp, a University of Michigan professor who specializes in the medical supply chain. Hopp led a group convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine to deliver a March report on securing supplies for U.S. industries.

These problems could’ve been addressed earlier by government and the private sector, Hopp said. “But now they can only scramble to cope with the crisis with the health of American citizens at stake,” he added.

The years since the pandemic began have been punctuated by supply chain problems. The baby formula shortage — which began after a Michigan factory was closed because of contamination concerns — is only the latest. Hospitals are facing a scarcity of contrast dye used in diagnostic scans, the result of a COVID lockdown at the Shanghai plant where most of it is produced. As a consequence, hospitals from New Jersey to Washington state have been trying to ration scans for the most serious cases. And early in the pandemic, the scarcity of personal protective equipment for front-line health care workers was a defining characteristic of the unprepared and haphazard response to COVID.


Such shortages are among the most-pressing patient-safety problems today, ECRI, a safety organization, said in a January roundup of the top safety concerns of the year. Shortages ranked second. “Unavailability of products could result in an inability to treat patients and protect staff, which could lead to injury, illness, or even death for both patients and clinicians,” the roundup said. It noted that many areas have few key suppliers, meaning that a problem in a far-off corner of the world could send dominoes falling into the U.S. health care system.

The impact is being felt in the guts of body scanners and other medical machines.

“Helium is a terrific element for diffusing heat,” said Bob Karcher, a contract services executive for Premier, a company that offers group purchasing services to providers. “It’s used in large MRIs and CTs, to draw heat away from the source.”

Hopp said the helium supply has been constrained for some time and that the war exacerbated the problem.


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©2022 Kaiser Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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