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A Chinese research team has developed a magnet-assisted device that protects doctors from infection while intubating patients suffering from respiratory illnesses.

Intubation is a common procedure that involves passing a tube into a patient's airway. Doctors often perform it before surgery or in emergencies to give oxygen or medicine to help patients breathe.

Designed for the safe intubation, the new magnetic technique can reduce exposure to aerosolized particles, which helps protect doctors while intubating patients suffering from respiratory disorders, including COVID-19.

Last week, researchers at Xi'an Jiaotong University, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province, and clinicians from the university's first affiliated hospital trialed the magnetic intubation on a patient before surgery.

The doctors used a device comprising an external magnet and a flexible tube with magnetic response units. After anesthetizing the female patient, they passed the tube through her mouth and down her throat. Next, they moved the external magnet on her neck forward and backward to guide the tube into the airway. Then they delivered oxygen and medicines to help her breathe.

The whole process took 40 seconds. When the patient no longer had difficulty breathing, doctors removed the tube.

Wang Rongfeng, a clinician at the hospital, said the magnetic technique makes intubating easier, allowing doctors to operate without using a laryngoscope.

The current method requires doctors to insert a laryngoscope into the patient's mouth during intubation to locate sensitive tissues in the throat, such as the vocal cords, to avoid damaging them.

However, the scope could increase the infection risk as the doctor has to be right over the patient's mouth. Inserting the scope can cause the patient to cough, which may send droplets up into the doctor's face.

"The magnetically driven technique can reduce the discomfort caused by the scope for patients, and doctors do not need to lean in to see the throat, which will eventually decrease the risk of cross-contamination between patients and doctors," Wang said.

It will work well particularly in patients with phlegm clots, bleeding, obesity and short necks, the clinician added.

According to the research team, animal and manikin tests showed the success rate of magnetic intubation was over 90 percent among doctors and 85 percent among non-professionals.

Lead researcher professor Lyu Yi said the results suggest that magnetic intubation is easy to do and worth promoting.

"If more people could master the technique, and more such devices were available in public places, then more people could get lifesaving emergency treatment," Lyu said.

The university researchers are applying for a mass production permit from the local medical products administration. They also plan to develop an intubating robot to assist doctors.

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