Despite precautions, retained surgical objects remain a threat

Most surgeries go off without a hitch, but that fact is cold comfort to those who suffer the ill effects of surgical errors. Regardless of the circumstances, errors during surgery are a horrifying prospect; operating on the wrong body part or nicking an artery are common fears among surgical patients. Another type of surgical error that may not spring immediately to mind, but can be equally devastating, is known as a "retained surgical item" error. This occurs when surgical equipment or other foreign object is left inside the body by mistake.

Two retained object surgical errors per hospital per year

Retained object surgical errors are relatively rare; they occur only once every few thousand surgeries - about one in 5,500 to 7,000, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. However, considering that there were well over 50 million inpatient procedures performed in 2010 alone, errors of this type still occur on a regular basis at hospitals in Iowa and throughout the nation.

In fact, the authors of a study published in the September 2014 issue of the Journal of the American College of Surgeons estimate that retained object surgical errors occur about twice per year on average at a typical U.S. hospital. When they do occur, the consequences can be disastrous.

Not only can retained objects cause infection and related pain and suffering, but they also create the need for additional medical procedures, which exposes the patient to further risks. Patients may need to be readmitted to the hospital and undergo additional surgeries to remove the foreign object, which is disruptive to the healing process and creates a new risk of infection at the surgical site. The retained objects themselves may also create a risk of abscesses, obstructions, fistulas, perforations and other potentially deadly complications.

Objects commonly left behind during surgery

Objects that are commonly left behind in the body as a result of surgical errors include needles, fragments of drill bits and other instruments, and surgical sponges. While any of these objects can cause grave harm, the specific nature of the risk involved varies according to the nature of the item. For instance, sharp objects like needles and drill bits create a higher risk of internal perforation, while sponges are more likely to harbor bacteria and cause infection-related damage.

Because they absorb blood and are irregularly shaped, gauze surgical sponges are especially likely to be missed and left behind when tucked inside a surgical site. Approximately two out of every three retained object surgical errors involves a surgical sponge.

Precautionary measures fail to account for missing sponges

Because the risk of retained sponges during surgery is well known, hospitals usually require that a nurse or other member of the surgical team count each sponge as it is used, and then count once again as the sponges are removed to ensure that none are left behind. Nevertheless, in about 80 percent of retained sponge cases, the operating team had determined that all sponges were accounted for.

People who have been harmed by retained objects or other surgical errors are encouraged to discuss the situation with an attorney who is experienced in medical malpractice law. He or she can answer the patient's questions and evaluate whether it may be wise to move forward with a medical malpractice claim, which may allow the patient to receive financial compensation for pain and suffering, lost wages, medical costs and other damages.