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Health care researchers keep detailed records on what they call “retained surgical objects.” This makes sense because leaving a foreign object inside a patient’s body often causes a severe infection, intense pain, internal injuries and uncontrolled bleeding. Multiple follow-up surgeries are then typically required to remove the object and repair the damage to the extent possible. Figuring our what gets left behind and why that happens saves lives by pointing to ways to prevent such occurrences and reduces costs by, among other things, saving on medical malpractice settlements for surgical errors.


Our own Virginia medical malpractice law firm has secured large insurance settlements for people whose surgeons left behind sponges. Other common instances of retained surgical objects involve needles, knife blades, safety pins, scalpels, clamps and scissors.

As harmful as each individual case can be, the total number of patients who have suffered or died because a foreign object was left inside their body is truly disturbing. Citing a just-released Sentinel Event Alert from the Joint Commission, CBS News reported on Oct. 18, 2013,

There were 772 incidents of foreign objects left in patients that occurred from 2005 to 2012, resulting in 16 deaths. In 95 percent of the cases, patients had to stay longer in the hospital. The most common sites these incidents occurred were operating rooms, labor and delivery rooms, ambulatory surgery centers or labs where invasive procedures such as catheters or colonoscopies take place.

A sentinel event is an error or near-miss that calls attention to a systemic problem. When a root cause goes unaddressed, sentinel events continue to occur and patients continue to suffer and die from mistakes that could (and should) have been prevented. According to the Joint Commission, which is authorized by the U.S. government to inspect and accredit hospitals and other health care facilities, the issues that lead to surgeons and surgical teams failing to remove sponges, scalpels, clamps and other objects include a “lack of policies and procedures, a failure to comply with existing procedures, failures in communication with fellow doctors, hierarchy and intimidation problems within hospitals and poor education of staff.”

Each of those issues can be addressed by developing and always using checklists that can be customized for specific surgeries; ensuring every member of a surgical team is properly trained, certified and licensed; and getting rid of doctors who bully and refuse to share information with nurses, aides and colleagues. When hospitals do not take these steps, they must be held accountable for failing to meet their standard of care for patients.


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