Hidden Dangers in Surgical “Leave Behind” Errors

We’ve all heard the stories of hospital patients leaving the hospital having picked up infections far worse than the condition for which they entered the hospital to be treated. Certainly MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus), the antibiotic resistant staph germ that can quickly spread throughout the body is a case in point. However, few of us realize the serious and often hidden threat that can follow us from the surgery table when surgeons leave behind instruments, needles and sponges in our abdominal cavity.

Deadly Surgery Debris Left Behind Causes Infections

According to a recent report in USA Today,1 more than a dozen times a day, surgeons sew up patients leaving surgical debris behind which can be deadly. What’s especially frustrating is that this is an entirely unnecessary problem. By far the most common “leave behind” is sponges. Sure, there is an occasional needle, clamp or forceps left, but this is rare. Sixty-seven percent of the time, it is sponges – which often don’t show up or are hard to detect on a post-operative x-ray – that stay behind to wreak havoc with the patient’s health months, even years, after the surgery. Many times it is only later, after infection sets in and widespread damage is done, that the error is discovered.

Symptoms associated with surgical debris

What kind of symptoms are linked to retained surgical debris? Searing pain, digestive disorders, even loss of part of the intestines have occurred as a result of gauzy, blood and other fluid-soaked sponges remaining in the abdominal cavity.

Amazingly, hospitals are not required to report when sponges or other debris are left inside a patient after surgery, but according to a USA Today special report government data suggest that it occurs between 4,500 and 6,000 times a year, which is twice the official government estimate. Between one and two percent of these cases is fatal.

Ten years ago, the National Quality Forum, a congressionally funded nonprofit, issued a landmark report placing lost sponges and instruments within the most serious category of medical error and urged steps be taken to drive down incidents. Yet, despite this report, no national reporting mandate exists today and the lack of available data on the subject speaks volumes about the little that has been accomplished on this front.

Setting aside the cost in terms of human suffering, the costs of surgical leave-behind in terms of dollars can be enormous. The average post-incident hospitalization is more than $60,000. Malpractice suits against hospitals for surgical leave-behind incidents have ranged from $100,000 to $200,000 per case.

Preventing future surgical leave behinds

There is a solution to surgical leave behind. Barcode and radio-frequency sponge-tracking systems approved by the FDA are available and highly effective at identifying sponges left in the body before a patient is sewn up. However, only 600 hospitals nationwide – out of 4,200 institutions that perform surgery – have installed such technology.

The cost of the system can be problematic for some hospitals, but its value to patient safety cannot be overlooked. Some administrators are coming to the opinion that the technology pays for itself if it eliminates even one error. At the University of North Carolina Health Care hospital, not one lost-sponge case has been identified since the technology was adopted in 2011.1

Interestingly, some experts feel that the slow adoption of the sponge-tracking systems may be as much due to the fact that so few lost sponge cases are currently being tracked to the individual surgeon responsible. Until surgeons themselves feel vulnerable, widespread change may be slow in coming.

If you or a member of your family has been harmed by debris left behind following a surgical procedure, contact the lawyers of Bachus & Schanker, LLC immediately to consider your options for legal action and compensation for your pain and suffering. Call 866.224.7089.

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