Preventing left-behind sponge errors during surgery

Surgical sponges are sheets of absorbent, gauze-like material that are used in large quantities during surgery to soak up blood and keep the surgery site clean. Unfortunately, due to their ability to blend in with their surroundings, and their tendency to be tucked away out of sight inside surgical incisions, they are sometimes lost or forgotten inside patients' bodies at the conclusion of a surgical procedure.

When an incision is sewn up with a surgical sponge still inside, it can result in serious infections and other potentially debilitating complications, which in the most severe cases can even lead to death.

What is being done to protect patients?

One step that hospitals take to minimize the risk of lost or forgotten sponges during surgery is by appointing a member of the surgical team, often a nurse, to keep count of sponges as they are used and removed throughout the procedure in order to make sure the counts match up before the incision is closed.

However, this method is subject to human error and is not always reliable, especially in emergency situations where there are likely to be several things happening at once. About four out of every five times that a surgical sponge is left behind during surgery, a manual count had incorrectly established that all sponges were accounted for, according to a New York Times story on retained surgical items.

Some hospitals take the manual counting method one step further by storing sponges in special individual compartments similar to over-the-door shoe storage units. By taking sponges from their compartments one by one and returning them upon removal, it is easier for surgical teams to quickly spot when a sponge is missing at the end of a procedure.

High-tech tracking systems show promise

Other methods of keeping track of sponges during surgery are considerably more high-tech. Some newer sponge-tracking systems rely on barcodes that are sewn on to sponges individually, allowing them to be scanned into a computer system as they are used and removed. At the end of a surgery, the system can issue an alert if it detects that any sponges are missing.

A similar method uses tiny radio-frequency chips embedded in the sponge material, which can be detected with special scanners. This method has the advantage of not only notifying the surgical team that a sponge is unaccounted for, but also helping them to locate any missing sponges within the patient's body.

Although these higher-tech systems require a more substantial investment by hospitals on the front end than traditional methods such as manual counting, they have the potential to greatly reduce overall costs by eliminating many of the complications and related follow-up care caused by lost-sponge surgical errors. Each year, an estimated 3,000 to 6,000 sponges and other surgical items are left behind inside patients during surgery in U.S. hospitals. Unfortunately, only about 15 percent of hospitals currently use electronic sponge-tracking systems, the USA Today reported.

Get legal advice after a medical error

If you or a loved one has been harmed by a forgotten sponge or other medical error in Louisiana, be sure to talk your situation over with an experienced medical malpractice attorney. Contact The Townsley Law Firm to discuss the possibility of pursuing financial compensation for the harm you have suffered and the steps you can take to protect your legal rights.