Joint Commission raises alarm about "retained foreign objects"

An alert recently issued by The Joint Commission (the non-profit organization that certifies and accredits more than 20,000 health care programs throughout the country) aims to increase awareness of an all-too-common surgical error: retained foreign objects. The phrase "retained foreign objects" may seem unfamiliar to some, but the concept is simple; the surgeon or surgical team inadvertently left something behind in the patient's body following a surgical procedure. Common retained objects are:

  • Surgical sponges
  • Clamps
  • Caps
  • Retractors
  • Scalpels
  • Needles

The Commission's report reveals startling statistics about retained foreign objects and the devastating effect they can have on patients. Complications from these objects (including infections, adhesions and blockages, to name a few) have killed 16 people since 2005, and there have been more than 770 incidents reported in that same timeframe.

Perhaps most shocking is the cost per patient: each incident results in an average cost range of $166,000 to $200,000. This includes unreimbursed Medicare expenses, hospital labor costs, fees for additional surgeries or hospital stays, and legal costs.

Systemic changes needed

Given that there are an average of 100 cases of retained foreign surgical objects annually, it is clear that a dramatic change needs to come in the way that hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses account for surgical implements. Though most surgeons and facilities have some form of counting procedure in place, the chaos of surgery - particularly emergency surgery for a life-threatening condition - often leads to surgical errors. Furthermore, with multiple staff members, all of whom could have their own interpretation of the counting system and their own process, playing an important role in the process, there can be miscommunication between them that could lead to an erroneous count.

There are several ways in which hospitals can take steps to decrease the likelihood of retained foreign objects in post-surgical patients. These include:

  • The establishment (if one doesn't already exist) of a strict counting policy for all surgical staff, including both doctors and nurses
  • Hospital-wide training on proper surgical instrument and implement counting practices
  • The use of bar codes on surgical implements, particularly on sponges, since they can "blend in" with the surgical site and easily be missed in a count
  • Using radiograph-sensitive material for surgical sponges so that they would show up on X-rays and other imaging tests
  • Tags on surgical implements that can be read by a scanner-like device outside the patient

No matter what the cause, be it a counting error or another reason, retained surgical objects can be hugely detrimental for a patient, causing severe pain, infections, other post-surgical complications and sometimes even death. If you have tragically lost a loved one - or you have been seriously injured yourself - because of a retained foreign object, you have rights. To learn more about holding the doctor or medical facility responsible accountable for your injuries, speak with a skilled medical malpractice attorney today.