Surgical Items Left inside Patients 4,000 times Each Year: What You Need to Know When Having Surgery

Each year, some 4,000 surgical patients in the United States are seriously injured when items used during their procedures, from sponges to medical instruments, are accidentally left inside their bodies when their medical teams sew them back up.

The problem of retained surgical items has been an issue for years and has led surgeons and medical facilities to look for new methods to prevent such items being left behind inside patients in the first place, according to a story in The New York Times.

“In most operating rooms, a nurse keeps a manual count of the sponges a surgeon uses in a procedure,” the story reported. “But in that busy and sometimes chaotic environment, miscounts occur, and every so often a sponge ends up on the wrong side of the stitches.”

A surgical team is in the midst of a medical procedure in this stock photo. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/uchar

A surgical team is in the midst of a medical procedure in this stock photo. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/uchar

Systems are now available that can track every sponge and instrument used inside a patient with tiny Radio-Frequency Identification tags that can automatically report when every sponge and instrument is removed. Dozens of sponges might be used inside a patient during a procedure, which makes them vulnerable to being forgotten during surgery.

“In a study published in the October issue of The Journal of the American College of Surgeons, researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill looked at 2,285 cases in which sponges were tracked using a system called RF Assure Detection,” The New York Times reported. “At the end of an operation, a detector alerts the surgical team if any sponges remain inside the patient. In the U.N.C. study, the system helped recover 23 forgotten sponges from almost 3,000 patients over 11 months.”

The RFID tag system adds about $10 to the cost of a surgical procedure, the story reported.

Another system designed to prevent such medical mistakes uses barcodes on sponges and medical instruments that are scanned as they are used on a patient and then scanned again as they are removed. If something is left behind, the surgical teams will know it because the inventory of items used and then removed will be off.

For victims, these kinds of medical mistakes can be intensely painful and lead to major health problems.

One such victim was a nurse in Kentucky who became ill with crushing pain in her abdomen one night while she was working in 2005, the Times reported. The next day, a CT scan discovered a surgical sponge that had been left behind inside her abdomen when she had undergone a hysterectomy four years before. When doctors went in to remove it, they found that it caused a spreading infection that required the removal of a large section of her intestine. The patient sued the hospital and won a $2.5 million verdict, but the award was appealed and remains in legal limbo.

In August, a Fresno, Calif.-based hospital was fined $50,000 by state investigators after surgeons accidentally left a surgical towel inside a patient which was discovered four months later after she suffered serious health problems post-surgery, according to a story by KFSN News. It was the fourth violation reported against the hospital, Saint Agnes Medical Center, since 2007, according to the story.

Since that case, “the hospital developed a policy to inventory objects, such as instruments and sponges used during surgeries,” the story reported. “Hospital staff also switched operating room towels from the color blue, to white towels that can be detected in x-rays.”

In December of 2011, a New Philadelphia, Ohio man won a $275,000 settlement from a veteran’s hospital after two surgical towels were left inside his abdomen during kidney cancer surgery in 2008, according to a story by CBS News.

The tragedy is that these kinds of medical mistakes could be prevented through electronic tracking systems that are presently available such as the RFID and barcode systems, but many hospitals continue to fight such fixes, the Times reported.

One hospital that is doing proactive work to prevent these kinds of medical errors is Harrison Medical Center in Bremerton, Wash., where they in 2010 adopted a patient safety program called NoThing Left Behind.

“The issue of foreign objects, and most specifically sponges, being left behind in surgical cases is a serious issue,” the hospital states on its website. The program “provides a three-level approach to accounting for surgical objects,” including the mandatory use of X-ray detectable sponges or towels during surgeries, as well as manual sponge counts by surgical team members. Also required are the use of hanging sponge holders and a white board to carefully and accurately track the sponges that are used, as well as confirmation by the surgeons that all devices have been extracted, the hospital states.

“Those efforts paid off,” the hospital reported. “In 2011, Harrison had no items, including sponges, being unaccounted for at the end of the surgery.”

NoThing Left Behind was started in October of 2004 by Dr. Verna C. Gibbs, a professor of surgery at the University of California in San Francisco, to fight against such medical mistakes.

For patients who suffer serious medical traumas and long-term medical complications from incidents of medical sponges and devices that are left behind, such changes cannot come quickly enough.

These kinds of medical errors can be prevented simply through the use of tracking systems that are available, affordable and smart.

No surgical patients should have to suffer from these kinds of injuries in the future.

It’s time to make such systems mandatory for patient safety.

Meanwhile, if you or a family member is ever injured due to a medical error, you should get the best legal advice you can find to learn your legal options so you can recover damages for your injuries and suffering.

We here at MyPhillyLawyer stand ready to assist you with your legal case if you or a loved one is ever seriously injured in a medical malpractice or related case anywhere in the United States. We represent the families of victims who die in such tragedies as well, to ensure that their families receive every penny of damages that they are eligible to receive.

Call MyPhillyLawyer at 215-227-2727 or toll-free at 1-866-920-0352 anytime and our experienced, compassionate, aggressive team of attorneys and support staff will be there for you and your family every step of the way as we manage your case through the legal system.

When Winning Matters Most, Call MyPhillyLawyer.