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Common surgeon mistake: leaving sponges inside patients

As a nurse herself, one woman never imagined that she would be the victim of a surgical mistake. But four years after a hysterectomy, a painful stomachache led to a CT scan that showed a sponge left inside her abdomen. An immediate surgery removed the sponge.

New York patients should be aware that finding a sponge inside a patient is not that rare of a surgical error. There are nearly 4,000 cases of surgical items left inside patients every year, mostly gauzelike sponges. Doctors use sponges to control bleeding during procedures and the longer the operation the more sponges are used.

Although the woman mentioned had the sponge removed immediately, the damage wasn't over yet. The leftover material caused an infection and she needed to have a large part of her intestine removed. After filing a medical malpractice case, the victim of this medical mistake won $2.5 million, but still struggles from lingering depression and anxiety from the event.

In order to prevent this type of negligence, doctors sometimes use an old-fashioned count method where a nurse keeps a manual count of the items and sponges used in the operating room. But new technology may be better adept at accounting for items amid a chaotic surgery atmosphere. The new technology uses radio frequency tags or bar codes to inventory items. Certain national groups have called on hospitals to start utilizing these procedures, but many are resisting, thus opening themselves up for more medical malpractice claims.

Electronic tracking seems to be the safest trend and some systems only add roughly $10 per procedure. The price seems reasonable given the potentially dangerous alternative. Ideally, experts say that a combination of the electronic tracking with the manual counting will create the safest surgery environment.

Because of the enhanced technology options, patients who are injured as a result of a sponge or other item being left inside following surgery may be able to recover compensation for the surgeon's or hospital's negligence. Compensation for injuries may include money to pay for additional medical expenses as well as pain and suffering incurred.

Source: The New York Times,"When Surgeons Leave Objects Behind," Anahad O'Connor, Sept. 24, 2012

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