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The serious problem of 'retained foreign objects' after surgery

After completing a stay in a hospital, you may be sent home with a souvenir of your visit. Nurses often let you take home those special hospital socks with thick material and treads on the bottom. Other times, you get to keep the little water pitcher from your bedside table tray.

But some patients are sent home with hospital equipment that they don’t want and don’t even know that they have. It is surprisingly common for surgical equipment to be accidentally left inside of patients, and the consequences can be devastating or even fatal.

The official name for this problem is “retained foreign objects” (or sometimes “retained surgical items”). The most frequent items left behind are surgical sponges. Statistically, any patient’s chance of suffering this medical mistake is low. Nonetheless, it is estimated that this error occurs twice a year at a typical hospital in the United States.

No matter what gets left inside the body, however, a retained object can cause serious pain and health problems. These include:

  • Abscesses
  • Obstructions
  • Perforation of internal organs
  • Intestinal fistulas
  • Death

Removing the object often requires additional surgeries, which means more time spent in the hospital and in recovery. It also amounts to higher costs incurred by the hospital (including costs from medical malpractice lawsuits).

One reason this error is so frustrating is that it is fairly easy to prevent by investing in certain technologies. Some medical device manufacturers now offer sponges with tiny, radiofrequency ID chips in them. When the surgery is complete, medical team members pass a wand over the patient’s body. If a sponge has been left behind, the chip will be detected by the wand and an alert will sound. This equipment costs a little more on the front end, but the costs are negligible compared to the costs of correcting the error later on.

If you have recently had surgery and were left feeling worse rather than better, it’s possible that a piece of surgical equipment was left behind in your body. After contacting the hospital to address the problem, you may wish to speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney.

Source: The Washington Post, “When your surgeon accidentally leaves something inside you,” Lenny Bernstein, Sept. 4, 2014

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