Organ Transplant Lawyer BostonWhat may come as an unpleasant surprise for anyone undergoing surgery is that it is not uncommon for a surgical instrument or other item used during the procedure to be left inside the patient’s body cavity. More unsettling, is that these mistakes may not produce any symptoms for months or years until the patient has suffered a serious infection or, worse, a permanent and disabling condition or even death.


Leaving a surgical item behind in a patient is referred to as a “never event,” meaning it is an incident that should never happen. When it does, however, there is no question that it is malpractice. The only issue is the amount of compensation to which you are entitled based on the nature and extent of your damages, which can be considerable.


The most common item left behind in a patient are surgical sponges that surgeons use to soak up blood and bodily fluids, which comprise of 70 percent of items that are mistakenly left in a patient. Less often are scalpels, clamps, forceps, scissors, fragments of tools and other items. These events are also called “retained item” cases.


Consequences of Leaving an Item Behind


A sponge left undetected for years can attach itself to and infect the bladder, intestines and wall of the abdominal cavity. From misdiagnosis or a delayed diagnosis, many patients go for months or longer after symptoms appear before the surgical error is detected and emergency surgery is performed.


For these patients, removal of the sponge can mean losing large parts of their intestines and having to endure a colostomy or similar bag located outside the body to collect waste. These unfortunate victims face a life time of suffering from bowel and digestion problems and are unable to enjoy many normal activities such as swimming or just going to the beach.


How Do Surgical Items Get Left Behind?


Surgical items like sponges get left behind from a variety of reasons. During a surgery, there can be numerous distractions from staff relief and from constant communications regarding the patient’s condition. Worse, is that hospitals and doctors largely rely on manual counts and despite repeated counting, errors occur.


A sponge is easy to miss especially if it is blood soaked and balled up in a body cavity. Sponges are left behind more often in obese patients or during abdominal operations. An emergency operation or one with complications can deflect concern about counting and in the chaotic atmosphere, sponges or other items are left behind.


In 80 percent of retained item cases, the surgical staff followed their established counting procedure.


Simple Technology to Resolve the Problem


A simple and cost effective measure to track sponges is by use of a radio-frequency tag called RF Assure Detection. The sponges have the tag attached to them, which is the size of a grain of rice. When the procedure is completed, a detector tracks and accounts for the sponges.


Another procedure is a bar code attachment, similar to those placed on products found in retail and grocery stores. A device scans for the sponges before use and as they are retrieved. If there is any reluctance to use the detectors by surgeons or hospitals, it may only be used if there is a discrepancy in manual counting or if a nurse or other staff has concern that not all items are accounted. Still, human error remains.


The cost of these electronic devices would only add between $8 and $10 to each surgical procedure. Unfortunately, fewer than 15 percent of hospitals use tracking devices. Also, federal law does not require hospitals to report incidents of retained items and only about half the states have reporting protocol that includes these events as a medical error.


A Reluctance to Use the Technology


The cost of hospitalization of a patient to remove a retained item is about $60,000. If a medical malpractice claim is filed, the cost to hospitals is between $100,000 and $200,000 per case. For many hospitals, short term costs outweigh the long term with little consideration for a patient’s safety and well-being.


One factor into why a hospital may resist efforts to institute electronic tracking is that these are relatively rare events. Because patients may not suffer any symptoms for years after the event, it may be difficult to track the event back to the facility where it occurred.


One hospital system has implemented the technology–IU Health–which spends about $275,000 per year for its three Indianapolis hospitals. In the five years since it began electronic tracking, no single lost sponge event has occurred.


Doug Lovenberg is a Boston lawyer who routinely handles medical malpractice claims including the type of claims explained here. If you have been the victim of a medical negligence including surgical error, a retained item, misdiagnosis or delay in diagnosis, call Doug Lovenberg today for a free consultation.