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Surgical Tools Too Often Left Behind in Patients

Breakdowns in surgical team communication often at fault, watchdog group says
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WebMD News from HealthDay

By Steven Reinberg

HealthDay Reporter

THURSDAY, Oct. 17 (HealthDay News) -- You go in for surgery, and only find out later that one of the surgeon's tools -- a sponge, a needle, a surgical implement -- has been left behind in your body.

A rare occurrence? Not really, according to the watchdog group The Joint Commission, which is urging hospitals across America to find better ways to avoid the problem of "retained surgical items."

"Leaving a foreign object after surgery is a well-known problem, but one that can be prevented," Dr. Ana McKee, the commission's executive vice president and chief medical officer, said during an early afternoon press briefing Thursday.

Her group believes that this is an all-too-common problem -- one that can even prove fatal or leave severe damage to patients, both physically and emotionally.

According to the commission, there have been more than 770 reports of retained foreign objects in surgical patients over the last seven years. These cases resulted in 16 deaths and in almost 95 percent of the cases patients had to have their hospital stay extended. The objects most often left inside patients include sponges and towels, broken parts of instruments, and stapler parts and needles or other sharp pieces.

"It is critical for organizations to develop and comply with policies and procedures to make sure all surgical items are identified and accounted for as well as to ensure there is open communication by all members of the surgical team about any concern," McKee said.

Certain patients or procedures seem more prone to having implements unaccounted for after surgery. According to McKee, these include overweight patients, more rushed or urgent procedures, having more than one surgical procedure and multiple surgical teams, or having staff turnovers during the procedure.

McKee noted that the 770 cases reported is probably only the tip of the iceberg and the actual number of these incidents may be closer to 1,500 to 2,000 each year. These mistakes can also lead to financial outlay: According to the commission, leaving objects inside patients cost as much as $200,000 in medical liability payments for each case.

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