“They Left A Sponge In Me!”

How often are sponges, towels, pads and other foreign objects left in surgical patients?  The Doctor’s Company, a medical malpractice insurer, has shared some information that helps us get an idea of the scope of the problem.

The insurer reports that from 2002 through 2011, there were 3,273 surgical claims closed (not including obstetric cases). Five percent involved retained foreign objects, with half of those being sponges, towels, or pads.  That means that this one insurer has defended about 160 foreign object claims during the indicated ten-year period.

The insurer admits that the claims are very difficult, if not impossible, to defend.

Historically, intra- or post-operative x-rays were used to identify foreign objects in patients.   Today, radio frequency identification (RFI) chips are starting to be used to automatically keep track of the sponges and surgical towels used in a procedure.  With this technology, a wand-type device is waved over the surgical site to determine whether there are any retained sponges or towels. The technology does not work for locating surgical instruments that have been left inside patients.  One manufacturer of the RFI technology claims that "zero is now the achievable standard for retained surgical sponges."

The Cedars Sinai Hospital shares this policy in an effort to eliminate foreign objects being left in surgical patients.

Given the large number of surgeries that occur every day, 160 cases over 10 years may not seem like that many.  However, this is only one insurer in the country that represents less than 10 % of all doctors and therefore its date reveals a small portion of the problem.  Indeed, the manufacturer of the RFI technology reports that objects are left in patients in 1 of every 1500 chest and abdominal surgeries.

It makes no difference whether this problem is eliminated using new technology or just the common sense ideas set forth in the information from Cedars Sinai Hospital.  It just needs to stop.