Surgical Sponges Often Left Behind, Causing Patients Permanent Damage

The Illinois Department of Health is required to report adverse medical events, which are also called “never” events because they should never occur. One particularly devastating type of never event involves retained foreign objects such as surgical sponges and tools left inside patients after surgery. Patient safety researchers from Johns Hopkins conducted a national study on these and found that approximately 2,000 correction procedures are necessary each year.

Researchers commented that these estimates are likely to be much lower than the actual number because they only account for the cases where the retained object was identified. Many issues are not brought to light for months or years after the surgery, or are never associated with the surgery at all.

Retained sponges are most common in the abdomen

About 70 percent of the retained objects each year are surgical towels and sponges, and they are most frequently left behind after procedures on the abdomen. When they are not discovered right away, sponges or towels can cause infections or hemorrhaging, wrap themselves around internal organs, and even perforate the walls and linings of the organs.

When a Florida man experienced extreme pain nearly a year after an abdominal surgery, doctors discovered multiple sponges fused to his colon. The resulting infection made it necessary for surgeons to remove parts of his intestines.

Technology could prevent retained objects

Hospitals enforce instrument counts after each procedure in an attempt to avoid surgical errors, but there are typically dozens and even hundreds used in a single surgery. Especially in fast-paced situations such as emergency department operations, taking time to count the tools before the procedure may be difficult. When sponges are saturated with blood, they often look like the tissues around them, and nurses can have difficulty recognizing them.

X-rays reveal the presence of most surgical tools, but even though the severity of the damage is often extensive, a surgical sponge frequently looks like a mass or tumor when it is visible at all. New technology uses radio frequency tags and scanners to identify each sponge and prevent them from becoming retained objects. This technology adds six to eight dollars to the cost of each surgery, but a small percentage of hospitals have adopted it.

Illinois has a statute of limitations for compensation regarding injuries such as medical malpractice. Victims of retained objects can benefit from the advice of an Illinois Medical Malpractice Lawyer who is qualified to navigate the state’s legal system for compensation to cover medical expenses, lost wages and pain and suffering.