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Michigan’s role in preventing retained surgical object errors

Retained objects are a very serious hazard for surgical patients. This type of medical error occurs when a surgical instrument, sponge, towel or other object is forgotten during surgery and left behind inside a patient's body during surgery, sometimes going undetected until serious health complications develop. This type of preventable error is a "never event." It should never happen when proper care is taken. Yet each year thousands of citizens are needlessly injured due to the negligence by doctors and nurses. In recent years, efforts to eliminate retained object surgical errors have been increasing, and some of them have been based right here in Michigan.

Hospitals have options for keeping track of sponges

Michigan's own Stryker Corporation became involved in the business of preventing retained surgical objects when it purchased a company called Patient Safety Technologies in late 2013. That company manufactures a barcode-based surgical safety system that helps surgical teams keep track of sponges and towels in the operating room. Each surgical sponge and towel is affixed with a tiny barcode, which can be scanned before use and again upon removal from the patient's body. Specialized software keeps track of each barcode and notifies the surgical team if any sponges or towels are unaccounted for at the end of the procedure.

A similar surgical safety system, also with ties to Michigan, uses tiny radio-frequency tags instead of barcodes to keep track of surgical materials. Developed at the University of Michigan, this method allows the surgical team to scan the patient's body to check the surgical site for retained objects before stitching it closed.

Other methods of preventing retained objects are decidedly less high tech; for instance, some hospitals use special sponge holders that are similar to over-the-door shoe storage systems, in which each sponge has its own individual compartment. Later, when the sponges are removed after surgery, each one is placed back into its own compartment, thus making it easier to determine when a sponge is missing.

Whatever the method, the evidence demonstrates that it is worthwhile for hospitals to have a safety net in place to provide a backup for traditional manual counting. According to a New York Times report on the issue, about 80 percent of retained object cases occur after what was believed at the time to be an accurate sponge count. This means an object is left in a patient because a doctor or nurse simply counted wrong. Despite the ease of implementing a patient safety back-up system to help protect patients from negligent doctors and nurses, only about 10 percent of U.S. hospitals currently use barcode or radio-frequency tracking systems.

Compensation may be available to victims of medical errors

When a sponge, towel or other object is left behind inside a patient's body during surgery, the consequences can be catastrophic. Not only is there a risk of serious infection, perforation and other internal injuries, but the patient may also be exposed to further risks as a result of the additional surgical procedures that are needed to remove the retained object.

If you or a loved one has been harmed by a retained surgical object or any other type of medical error, be sure to talk things over with a medical malpractice attorney at your earliest opportunity. You may be entitled to financial compensation for your injuries and related losses, including pain and suffering, lost income and medical bills.