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Alert Urges Hospitals to Address Problem of Retained Surgical Objects

Cranwell & Moore P.L.C. Feb. 14, 2023

Surgery is a scary experience for many. When most people worry about it, they worry whether the surgery will successfully treat the medical condition or if the experience will be painful. However, the possibility that a surgeon would leave a surgical object like a towel, sponge, clamp or other surgical tool probably does not top the list of worries. However, according to a recent alert by the Joint Commission, an organization that accredits healthcare programs, this type of surgical error is a cause for concern.

According to statistics cited in the alert, retained foreign objects are more common and serious than most of the public realizes. The Joint Commission reported that there were 772 cases of retained surgical objects between 2005 and 2012. In 95 percent of those cases, the error was so serious that the patient needed longer hospitalization. Even more serious, left-behind surgical objects were responsible for 16 deaths during this time.

The most shocking aspect of the alert indicated that the data regarding patient complications due to retained surgical objects was voluntarily reported. This indicates that this type of surgical error likely happens much more frequently than the alert suggests. Since there is no federal law that mandates hospitals to report this type of error, it is difficult to tell how often it occurs. Although the federal government estimates about 3,000 patients suffer from left-behind surgical objects each year, a 2013 USA Today analysis of medical malpractice lawsuits found that the number is closer to 4,500-6,000 times per year.

Hospitals Resistant to Change

According to the Joint Commission, a retained surgical object is an expensive type of surgical error, costing hospitals up to $200,000 per incident in legal fees, unreimbursed Medicare payments and additional treatment costs.

Despite the cost to hospitals, the alert highlighted the fact that many hospitals have clearly not implemented policies and procedures to address the problem. The alert noted that the biggest cause of retained surgical objects was a failure of staff members to communicate with each other. According to the alert, hospitals often have a culture of fear and intimidation that discourages staff members from speaking up when they suspect a mistake has been made. The Joint Commission urged hospitals to encourage staff to report errors and to develop procedures to ensure that all surgical instruments are accounted for before and after operations.

Consult an Attorney

Unfortunately, many hospitals, for whatever reason, continue to resist accounting for surgical objects, despite the abundance of cost-effective technological solutions, such as radio-frequency identification systems that provide a quick and accurate count of the surgical instruments used. Sadly, it often takes a medical malpractice lawsuit to make the hospitals see that it is in their best interest to address the problem.

If you have suffered after an operation because of a left-behind surgical object, an experienced attorney can ensure that you receive compensation for your medical bills, pain and suffering and other expenses caused by the negligent act.