Every year 4,000 patients end up with “retained surgical items” left in their bodies after surgery, the vast majority are sponges used to soak up blood. These “retained” items can cause lifelong distress and discomfort. New technology and sponge counting methods are available to make it easier to address the problem, but hospitals are resisting. Dr. Verna Gibbs, a professor of surgery at the University of Calfornia, San Francisco, is director of “NoThing Left Behind” a national surgical patient safety project. The New York Times recently reported that all sorts of tools are left in patients by mistake – not only sponges, which account for 2/3 of the left items, but clamps, scalpels, and even scissors!
The new technologies include radio-frequency tags, which tracks use of sponges with a tiny radio frequency tag. When the operation is complete, a detector alerts the surgery team if any sponges are inside the patient and is very effective in spotting things left behind. Another tracking system relies on bar codes for every sponge, but apparently, according to the Times, fewer than 1 percent of hospitals employ it. One doctor quoted in the article was sued before he became an advocate of electronic tracking, and now he won’t do surgery without the technology at work to make sure he and his team don’t leave any “retained’ items inside patients. Why don’t more hospitals use this technology? “In my heart, I think it comes down to hospitals not wanting to spend the extra 10 bucks,” he told the Times. That’s troubling, especially when $10 per operation cost for the added technology could save millions in malpractice costs.
Professor Gibbs says technology should be used in combination with other methods for accountability among surgery teams. Sure, the whole team must be involved in making sure items are not left inside patients, but technology can help a lot. Hospitals should be adopting it across the board because it’s the most foolproof way – in a system full of potential human errors – to protect patients. It’s that simple.