Retained surgical sponges: More common than you think

While there is tracking technology available, surgical sponges continue to be left behind in patients, causing severe damage.

Just recently, the Michigan Appeals Court made a ruling in a case involving a retained surgical sponge. Michigan Live news states that the case initiates from a 2003 open heart surgery procedure where hospital staff failed to find a missing sponge. In 2011, the man was having some health problems and went to the hospital. The sponge was then located behind his heart when X-rays were taken.

Medical News Today states that every week, surgeons in the U.S. leave an object inside a patient at an average of 39 times. Referred to as never events, it is estimated that every year, there are around 4,044 of these medical mistakes made and many of the items left behind are surgical sponges. Therefore, it is important for people to understand more about this serious issue.

What is a surgical sponge?

A surgical sponge is used to soak up body fluids, blood and other liquids when the human body is opened up. They are generally white in color, square in shape and are about the size of an adult's palm or a bit larger. Depending on the type of surgery that is being performed, dozens of them can be inserted into the body's cavity.

How are they forgotten?

The average hospital relies on a manual count method to keep track of the sponges. According to USA Today, before the surgery is performed, the operating room staff manually count the sponges. Then, before the surgeon closes the operation site, a second manual count is conducted to make sure that all of the sponges are accounted for. Sadly, it is not uncommon for staff to make a miscount.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that the sponges look very different. When they soak up these fluids, they often take on the appearance of other body tissue. This can make them difficult for surgeons to see, especially if there are more than 30 that have been used.

What damage does a retained surgical sponge cause?

When left undiscovered, surgical sponges can become entwined with other body tissue. In severe cases, this can lead to the development of an infection. Some patients even have to undergo several additional surgeries, not just to remove the retained sponge, but to try to fix the problems that the sponge caused. This can result in the removal of part of the intestine as well as permanent issues with the digestive system. Patients also suffer from ongoing physical pain, scarring, depression and reproductive issues in women.

Can the risk be averted?

Companies have created tracking technology systems for surgical sponges but hospitals appear to be reluctant to implement them. Despite that the average additional cost per operation is between $8 and $12, it is estimated that the number of American hospitals that use such technology is less than 15 percent. For one health system, the error rate of retained sponges decreased to zero after it installed a tracking system five years previously in three of its hospitals.

Patients in Michigan have the right to expect quality health care. If they feel that they have received care below standard, they may find it helpful to meet with a medical malpractice attorney.