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Why aren’t all hospitals investing in sponge-tracking systems?

Earlier this month, USA TODAY published a horrifying article about surgical errors involving retained sponges. Although leaving a sponge inside of a patient’s body is considered to be a surgical error that doctors, hospitals and nurses should never make, USA TODAY reported that the mistake is being made about 12 times a day in Illinois and throughout the entire country.

This report may be shocking and frightening for patients, but perhaps what is more shocking is that hospitals still refuse to invest in certain programs that may help to prevent these types of mistakes from happening. Thousands of medical centers in the U.S. rely on manually counting each sponge that is used during operations, but clearly this method is not working.

Only a small percentage of medical centers have invested in new technology that uses barcodes or radio-frequency tags on sponges to detect retained sponges in patients before ending surgical procedures. Some hospitals that have invested in this type of patient safety measure have reported no incidents of a retained sponge since using sponge-tracking systems. Although these systems improve patient safety and reduce liability costs for hospitals, many medical centers claim that the technology is too expensive.

Leaving a sponge inside of a patient’s body is a serious medical error, especially when the error is not detected for weeks, months, or years. Some patients do not begin to suffer health complications right away. When a retained sponge begins to cause problems months or years after an operation, it may be more difficult for doctors to determine what is wrong with a patient, prolonging a patient’s suffering. Additionally, by the time doctors realize a sponge has been left inside of a patient’s body, the patient’s injuries may be permanent.

The USA TODAY report featured a story about a woman who suffered severe injuries after doctors left a sponge inside of her. Doctors had performed a cesarean section and forgot to remove a sponge from the woman’s body that was the size of a washcloth. The woman’s stomach became very swollen, and when her bowels shut down six weeks later, she was rushed to the emergency room.

It was discovered that a retained sponge was causing the woman’s health problems, and another surgery was performed to remove the item. The operation lasted six hours because the sponge became entangled in the woman’s intestines. This incident happened in 2010, and the woman is still suffering from the mistake today. She now needs to take daily medications and may experience serious complications if she becomes pregnant again.

Source: USA Today, “What surgeons leave behind costs some patients dearly,” Peter Eisler, March 8, 2013


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