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While it may sound more like urban myth than reality, the fact is that surgical teams can — and do — leave foreign objects inside a person’s body after an operation. Indeed, previous studies have found that foreign objects are left behind in roughly one out of every 5,500 to 7,000 procedures.
While this may not seem like a very high number, consider that the National Center for Health Statistics found that there were 51.4 million surgeries performed here in the U.S. in 2010 alone.
Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons this month estimates that the average hospital has two retained object incidents every year, and that the total costs associated with these grievous medical mistakes can run from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.
This is not to mention the toll these incidents can have on patients, many of whom must deal with not just pain and suffering, but readmission, more surgery, obstructions and abscesses, to name only a few of the potential complications. Some even lose their lives as a result of this medical negligence.
Interestingly enough, the study also found that the objects most commonly left behind after surgery were sponges, which are often used to soak up blood and therefore more susceptible to escaping from view. What’s so problematic about retained sponges, say the authors, is that they can harbor dangerous bacteria and essentially begin to rot, unlike needles or metal instruments.
While all of this is certainly grim, the study did find that there was a way for hospitals to cut back on this type of surgical error, saving them substantial money and, more importantly, sparing patients from unnecessary harm.
The study authors recommended that hospitals consider turning to radiofrequency systems, in which each sponge has a tiny microchip embedded inside it. This, in turn, allows a member of the surgical team to run a wand over the patient at the end of the procedure to determine if any sponges remain.
Indeed, they found that five hospitals that implemented such systems between 2006 and 2012 saw a 93 percent reduction in retained sponge incidents. Furthermore, they estimated hospitals that introduce radiofrequency systems could save well over $500,000 in expenses related to retained sponges.
We can only hope to see more hospitals decide to make this worthwhile investment to keeping patients safe.
Source: The Washington Post, “When your surgeon accidentally leaves something inside you,” Lenny Bernstein, Sept. 4, 2014