Saturday, April 12, 2008

Can you patent a medical procedure?

Dear Rich: I have a question. Somebody told me that the Heimlich maneuver is patented. Is that true? Can medical procedures be patented? Does that mean somebody gets paid whenever a procedure like that is used in a hospital? I'm so glad you asked. The answers to your questions are No, Yes, and Maybe. The Heimlich maneuver -- the process that's reportedly saved over 50,000 lives, and has even been used successfully on a few pets -- is not patented. The process, though it seems obvious, now, was unknown before 1974. Dr. Heimlich did go on to patent some life saving devices, including a collapsible respiratory exerciser (4,323,078), and an improved tracheal tube (4,987,895).

Although the Heimlich maneuver isn't patented, medical procedures can be protected under patent law -- over 100 of these medical process patents are issued every month. And yes, patent owners can sue when their procedures are used without authorization. (FYI Dept.: A veterinarian won a case last year over his patented process for declawing a cat.) There is one big limitation on these patents. Under a 1996 federal law, the patent owner can't sue a doctor for infringing a medical process patent. In other words, a surgeon can use a patented process in the operating room without asking for permission beforehand. Still, that hasn't stopped lawsuits.

Anyway, thanks to Dr. H., many people -- for example, Cher, former New York Mayor Ed Koch, Elizabeth Taylor, Goldie Hawn, and Carrie Fisher -- are alive today. And since there is no copyright or patent on the method -- though there is a trademark* -- , let's all review it for our own selves. Here's the setup: A choking victim can't speak or breathe and needs your help immediately. Follow these steps*
  • From behind, wrap your arms around the victim's waist
  • Make a fist and place the thumb side of your fist against the victim's upper abdomen, below the ribcage and above the navel.
  • Grasp your fist with your other hand and press into their upper abdomen with a quick upward thrust. Do not squeeze the ribcage; confine the force of the thrust to your hands
P.S. Don't you love this Heimlich imagery created by "Little Miss" Sunshine?

*Previously I suggested that you avoid backslapping in favor of the HM, but a tip of the hat to Mexican Radio (see comments below) who points out that the HM has been demoted in favor of the back slap. (See Heimlich's response to back slaps, here.) Although there is no copyright or patent on the procedure, MR points out that the Dr. does have a trademark on the term "Heimlich Maneuver" -- which may explain why the American Red Cross now simply refers to the procedure as "abdominal thrusts."