Calling it “a well-known problem, but one that can be prevented,” an official with the Joint Commission — a nonprofit entity that accredits more than 20,000 health care organizations across the country — recently put the spotlight on so-called “unintended retention of foreign objects.”

That string of words is likely unfamiliar to many of our readers in New Jersey and elsewhere, and understandably so. Also known within the medical industry by the acronym URFO, unintended retention refers to medical instruments — such as scalpels and scissors — and objects such as sponges that are inadvertently left inside patients’ bodies following surgical procedures.

For obvious reasons, that type of surgical error greatly disturbs an accrediting authority, especially because it is completely preventable when members of surgical teams simply conduct their business in the way their industry expects them to.

In other words: The 770-plus cases of URFO that the commission says occurred in American hospitals between 2005 and 2012 were wholly the result of medical negligence. Tragically, 16 patient deaths have been reported since 2005 owing to URFO incidents.

The Joint Commission recently imparted a message to hospitals and surgery sites nationally that essentially stated this: Enough is enough, so up your game to ensure that these mistakes occur less often and that the medical-harm rate associated with them comes down fast.

That shouldn’t be hard to accomplish, notes the commission. In fact, it is as easy as establishing policies at hospitals and in surgery venues that demand close scrutiny of the types and numbers of surgical objects that are in use during an operation. The commission encourages so-called “counting policies” for surgical team members, as well as things like pre-surgery team reminders and the use of bar coding and radio frequency tags on surgical items.

And surgeons need to take a more proactive role in the process by encouraging and verifying results, and by understanding their preeminent role in the surgical theater as team leaders who can either promote a safety culture or undermine it through intimidation.

Source: ModernHealthcare.com, “Joint Commission calls for hospitals to address problem of objects left in surgical patients,” Ashok Selvan, Oct. 17, 2013