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Sponges, other items left in patients: Inexcusable and preventable

On Behalf of | Mar 19, 2013 | Surgical Errors

So-called “never events” in the realm of health care are aptly termed and well hinted at in just those two words: Certain patient outcomes are so egregiously wrong that they should simply never happen.

Even without elaboration on such medical errors, many readers can likely make an educated guess as to the types of things they include. Often cited, for example, are the obviously horrific consequences suffered through wrong-site and wrong-patient surgery.

Less commonly mentioned, yet occurring many thousands of times each year and leading to many medical malpractice claims and settlements, are retained surgical items — operation-related artifacts left inside patients’ bodies through surgical error. Research studies show those as most often being lost sponges that are simply forgotten about as other tasks are being attended to while wrapping up an operation.

That occurs more often than most people might suspect. In fact, three major studies in recent years are in decided agreement that sponges and other surgery-related items are left inside patients as many as 6,000 times or more each year. It is estimates that between one and two percent of retained-items cases result in patient fatalities.

What is truly tragic is that most medical experts think that the problem is actually easily and cheaply solved, and they can readily point to medical institutions that have impeccable records in avoiding such never events. Following problems in past years with surgical teams manually counting sponges, researchers came up with the idea of introducing sponges with bar codes into surgeries. These have proved highly effective for hospitals and operating teams using them.

And they are cheap, adding only a few dollars to the cost of a surgery.

That seems a wise investment, given an average estimated malpractice cost of about $150,000 for a lost sponge.

Source: USA TODAY, “What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly,” Peter Eisler, March 8, 2013

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