A recent alert issued by The Joint Commission (the non-profit organization tasked with accrediting and certifying thousands of the nation’s healthcare provider programs) aims to raise awareness of what happens when surgical implements get left behind following surgery. The “retained foreign objects” discussed in The Joint Commission’s October 2013 alert can be any instrument used during a surgical procedure, including scalpels, clamps, sponges, needles, retractors and more.
The issue of retained foreign objects is more serious than most people realize. The Commission reports that, since 2005, retained objects have killed 16 people and caused complications for 772 more. The average cost (encompassing additional treatment, prescription drugs, hospital time, care provider labor, follow-up surgeries, etc.) of each retained surgical object case is between $160,000 and $200,000. Perhaps the most alarming part about the Commission’s findings is that the 772 cases they noted were all voluntarily reported; there could be hundreds, even thousands, of cases that have gone unreported during the same timeframe.
Part of a systemic issue
The problem of retained foreign objects is sometimes a systemic one among hospitals, clinics, physicians, administrators, nurses and anyone else involved in surgical procedures or decisions: the lack of a cohesive counting procedure for surgical implements. The Commission’s research found that when there are well-defined, well-enforced counting procedures in place, the rate of retained surgical objects falls dramatically, even taking into account the orchestrated chaos of the surgical suite during an emergency situation.
Simply put, hospitals must use any means at their disposal to ensure that these incidents don’t occur, including:
- Using radiographic sponges/packing materials that will show up on X-rays
- Bar-coding surgical instruments
- Implementing standardized procedures for all surgical room interactions
- Providing ongoing training to staff – both doctors and nurses – on updated counting procedures (or any other changes to operating room policies and procedures)
- Tagging surgical implements with radiofrequency tags that can be read by scanners outside the patient’s body should an object be left behind (thus leading to a quicker removal of the object and a faster recovery for the patient)
Other surgery room errors
Unfortunately, the issue of retained surgical objects is not the only one causing surgery-related complications for patients. There are other so-called “never events,” wholly preventable medical errors that should “never” happen that all-too-frequently afflict patients, including:
- Wrong site surgery
- Performing the wrong procedure
- Performing surgery on the wrong patient
An estimated 4,000 preventable medical errors and other examples of medical malpractice happen each week to surgical patients, including more than 1,000 wrong procedures being performed, and more than 1,000 wrong site surgeries. Systemic policies are also needed to prevent these types of errors.
If you or a loved one has been injured because of a retained surgical implement or another surgical error, speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney in your area.