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Objects left in patients after surgery: A preventable phenomenon

In the past two decades, according to a study authored by Johns Hopkins University, surgeons left over 4,800 objects in patients. This is about 240 per year, or approximately once every business day. Every day, an object like a medical gauze sponge, clamp, tweezers or even a scalpel or scissors is left inside a patient’s body after surgery. The patient is then stitched up with a foreign and potentially deadly object stuck inside them, leading to further damage, typically resulting in systemic infection or even death.

The estimated number of objects left in patients over two decades is probably a conservative one: A report from the New York Times alleges that closer to 4,000 objects are left in patients each year. Surgical errors like leaving objects in patients, operating on the wrong body part or operating on the wrong person seem like unthinkable occurrences, but they are more common than many patients realize. The most common objects left behind are small gauze sponges used to mop up blood or other fluids during the surgical process.

Notable cases illustrate life-altering complications

Many notable instances of this disturbing phenomenon have occurred in Texas. In 2003, a Texas woman was admitted into exploratory surgery for an ectopic pregnancy. She experienced intense pain for a month after the procedure, so she went back to the hospital, where staff discovered that 10 inches of gauze had been left inside her body. She subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Christus Santa Rosa Healthcare and Hospital in San Antonio, according to Medical Law’s Regan Report.

In a story outside of Texas that received national attention, a mother from Alabama had a cesarean section birth in the spring of 2010. During the following month, however, her stomach swelled up to the size that it had been when she was pregnant. According to USA Today, her bowels stopped functioning two weeks later, leaving her in a massive amount of pain. She went to the hospital, where it was discovered that a washcloth-sized surgical sponge had been left in her abdomen following the procedure. Her abdomen was infected and the sponge was wreaking havoc on the rest of her body. She required hospitalization for nearly three weeks following the surgery to remove the washcloth and may require medication for life to address the irreversible damage done to her digestive tract.

What hospitals are doing about it

Some hospitals are taking the phenomenon of objects left in patients after surgery very seriously and have implemented strict protocols regarding instrument and sponge accountability before a patient can be stitched up. Some have even invested in sponges or instruments with embedded RFID chips that beep if left inside the body. An attending nurse simply has to hit a button, and the chip will let the surgeons know that there are still objects inside the patient. Utilizing RFID chips only costs an additional $10 per procedure, according to a study in the October issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons. Compared to the pain, suffering and expense of follow-up surgery and rehabilitation after a surgical error, the preventative measure seems like a substantial cost-effective investment, but a significant percentage of the nation’s hospitals have yet to adopt RFID chips or a similar preventative technology.

The use of radio frequency tags to track surgical sponges and other medical objects during surgery may become a new safety standard medical professionals owe their patients. Hospitals and medical professionals who fail to adopt the standard may eventually be found to be negligent in their level of care. Patients who have suffered a surgical error should contact an attorney experienced in medical malpractice. A medical malpractice attorney is familiar with the level of care patients are owed and can help an injured patient receive proper compensation.