Are Vein Finders the Answer to Fewer Needle Sticks?

by Lisa Emrich Patient Advocate

In recent days, I've noticed a news story being shared on Facebook about a technology that helps phlebotomists, infusion nurses, and other vascular specialists find veins to start an IV or draw blood. The technology has been around for several years, but when you first learn about something, it becomes news to you.

The Hard Stick

Historically, I've been a very "hard stick" when it comes to IV access. What that means is that it can be difficult to find a good vein and get an IV started. My record for the greatest number of sticks (cannula insertions) needed to successfully start an IV stands at nine tries with five nurses.

During my second round of Rituxan infusions back in 2010, I went to a local hospital outpatient infusion clinic for treatment. My assigned nurse seemed a bit too overconfident and proceeded to blow three veins some of my best veins before asking for assistance. The second nurse tried twice, as did the third. The fourth nurse tried only once before calling for a neonatal nurse to come help. Bless the nurse who regularly works with the teeny tiny veins of babies.

You would think that this experience was very much out of the ordinary, rare, an anomaly of sorts; however it happened again a years later at a different hospital. But the second time, the nurses had a nifty tool on hand to help. They had a device, often called a vein finder or vein viewer, to help visualize structures under the skin. On this occasion it was a vascular specialist who was ultimately called in to get my IV started.

How does vein visualization technology work?

Several different companies produce devices designed to help find veins. A quick Google search shows that you can order your own device from Amazon or Ebay if you wanted to. There is even a DIY video on YouTube that teaches how to make your own device for under $50.

I've personally seen three different devices in action over the years. Each one worked in a similar fashion using LED infrared light. Hemoglobin in the blood absorbs infrared light; so when the device is held above the skin, veins appear in contrast to surrounding tissue (either darker or lighter depending). At least one company has taken the technology a step further and projects a digital image of the veins back onto the skin.

I have to say that even with vein visualization devices, nurses have to rely upon their skills, and a bit of faith, to access veins that simply cannot be seen by the naked eye or infrared light. These devices do not magically make the process simple. So often with me, the vein finder simply provided confirmation that there were indeed NOT sufficient veins in the area being searched.

One of my favorite moments was when someone pulled out a keychain with an infrared light on it to quickly peek under my skin. It wasn't as powerful as the portable, handheld devices that are commercially available, but it did seem to work to find a few veins in a small area. I should have asked where he got the keychain; maybe it's worth carrying something like that around in your purse just for those pesky IV/blood draw situations if you are a hard stick.

Have your healthcare professionals ever used a vein finder with you? Did it seem to help?

Chiao FB, Resta-Flarer F, Lesser J, et al. Vein visualization: patient characteristic factors and efficacy of a new infrared vein finder technology. Br J Anaesth. 2013 Jun;110(6):966-71. doi: 10.1093/bja/aet003. Epub 2013 Feb 5.

Miyake RK, Zeman HD, Duarte FH, et al. Vein imaging: a new method of near infrared imaging, where a processed image is projected onto the skin for the enhancement of vein treatment. Dermatol Surg. 2006 Aug;32(8):1031-8.

Lisa Emrich
Meet Our Writer
Lisa Emrich

Living with multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid Arthritis, Lisa Emrich is an award-winning, passionate patient advocate, health writer, classical musician, and backroad cyclist. Her stories inspire others to live better and stay active. Lisa is author of the blog Brass and Ivory: Life with MS and RA and founder of the Carnival of MS Bloggers. Lisa frequently works with organizations in support of better policies, patient-centered research, and research funding. Lisa serves on HealthCentral’s Health Advocates Advisory Board, and is a Social Ambassador for the MSHealthCentral Facebook page.