Forgotten Sponges Pose a Serious Threat to Surgical Patients

Ever since the practice of medical surgery began, patients have run the risk of having foreign objects inadvertently left behind inside their bodies after an operation. In the worst cases, this type of surgical error can lead to excruciating pain, permanent disabilities and even death.

When a surgical item is left inside a patient after an operation, it is referred to as a "never event." This term refers to any serious, preventable medical error that should never happen if adequate safety measures are taken. Minnesota became the first state to require public reporting of medical never events in 2003.

Even though retained object surgical errors are almost entirely preventable, they still occur about 4,000 times per year nationwide, according to a New York Times report on the issue. Most often, these cases involve lost or forgotten surgical sponge. These gauze-like sponges are often used in large numbers to control bleeding and soak up blood during surgical procedures.

Because surgical sponges blend in easily with their surroundings and are often tucked away out of sight during surgery, great care must be taken to avoid leaving sponges behind after a surgical procedure. Retained sponges can create a breeding ground for bacteria, and even a single forgotten sponge can put a patient at risk of infection and other potentially deadly complications. Even if the error is detected before complications arise, the patient may still require additional procedures to remove the sponge, thus creating new risks and extending the patient's recovery time.

Effective, affordable prevention is available but underutilized

Although new and cost-effective technologies are available to help prevent retained object surgical errors, only a small handful of hospitals use them. Most hospitals still rely on the older and less-reliable practice of counting sponges manually. Especially in the chaotic setting of an emergency room, it is easy to lose count of sponges as they are used and removed. In about 80 percent of cases in which a sponge was left behind inside a patient, the surgical team had determined - incorrectly - that the sponge count was correct, the New York Times reported.

Electronic sponge-tracking systems use bar codes or radio-frequency tags to help surgical teams keep tabs on the sponges as they are placed inside the patient and confirm that all sponges are accounted for after the surgery. Although these systems add only a few dollars onto the cost of each procedure, hospitals often fail to adopt them until after a patient has been harmed by a forgotten sponge.

If you or a family member has suffered complications from a retained sponge or other object that was left behind inside the body during a medical procedure, be sure to talk to a medical malpractice lawyer about your options. You may have the opportunity to seek compensation through the civil legal system for your injuries and related losses, including medical care and lost wages.