In a recent report, the medical watchdog group The Joint Commission says that over 770 foreign objects have been left behind in American patients in recent years. The numbers are surprising, given the serious possible consequences of an object left behind, and the obvious ease with which such a problem could be prevented.
Given the complexity of a surgery and the high level of training that surgeons receive, leaving an object behind seems like an absurdly elementary mistake. But it's a mistake that can have serious complications for patients, who often require additional hospitalization after the incident. Sometimes, the object left behind can prove fatal; this was the case for 16 patients mentioned in the study.
Objects left behind have serious financial consequences, as well. Each incident results in an average of $200,000 in payments from the hospital. These payments are made in part due to liability for the surgeon's error.
The objects that are most commonly left behind are surgical sponges and pieces of broken instruments. The study found that overweight patients are at greater risk, as are patients who enter surgery as part of an emergency. Surgeons are also more prone to leave instruments behind if the nature of the surgery unexpectedly changes during the procedure.
The Joint Commission provided a number of guidelines that hospitals can follow to prevent such surgical errors in the future. Key amongst them was counting the number of objects used in the surgery both before and after the procedure, and performing a radiograph test upon the patient before the operation is completed. An intra-operative radiograph is a less-intense form of x-ray that could potentially reveal any foreign objects left behind before the patient's incisions were closed.
KMOX-TV, "Report: Too Many Surgical Implements Are Left Behind In Patients" No Author Given, Oct. 19, 2013