The Consequences Of Retained Surgical Items

Surgery is never completely free from risk. Some problems, however, are much easier to avoid than others. A “retained surgical item” is the term given to things like sponges and medical devices that are left inside when a patient is sewn up after surgery. A retained surgical item is an easily preventable mistake that can lead to drastic health consequences for the patient. Such an error is considered so obvious and easily avoidable that hospitals refer to them as “never events.” The victims of these “never events” often face hospitalization, further surgery, infection and possibly even death.

One Alabama woman was forced to undergo an emergency surgery lasting six hours to remove a large sponge that had become entangled with her intestines after being left inside from her caesarean section six weeks earlier. The sponge had caused an infection and the woman was hospitalized for three weeks after the second surgery. Hers is just one of the thousands of incidents of retained surgical items that happen in American hospitals every year, despite the misleading name “never events.”

The technology and know-how required to eliminated retained surgical items as a problem exists. Health care facilities that have invested in proper safety equipment, programs and training have been able to reduce this type of mistake to nothing. When it does occur, there is no reasonable excuse. A sponge left inside a patient will often remain there for months or years until an infection sets in. The consequences are often intense pain, digestive problems, and the possible removal of the portion of the intestine that has been affected. In extreme cases, these items can cause death.

Hospitals choose not to employ the technological solution to this problem. They are not required to report these incidents. Limits on medical malpractice suits help keep the cost to the hospital low so they are not incentivized to fix the issue. A patient who suffers a retained surgical item may experience health problems for the rest of his or her life. It is vital to do everything possible to hold hospitals accountable for these preventable errors.

Source: USA Today, “What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly,” by Peter Eisler, 8 March 2013