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New technology cuts down on surgical sponges left behind

When a patient of an Arizona hospital returns home after a surgical procedure, a phone call saying a mistake was made can be frightening. A repeat surgery is often necessary when doctors mistakenly leave medical instruments inside the body of a patient. To combat the problem, which doctors refer to as retained instruments, some hospitals are using a new type of medical sponge. It helps them to count the sponges to be sure that none are left behind.

Sponges account for about 70 percent of retained instruments. Unlike surgical steel instruments, sponges are rejected by the human body. A patient with a sponge left behind will often feel abdominal pain, and the situation can be serious if the sponge is not surgically removed. Most hospitals manually count sponges to be sure none have been left behind, but mistakes do happen. Now technology has made it possible to barcode sponges to help hospital personnel to keep track of them. These sponges cost hospitals more to purchase, but it is more cost-effective in the end. It is estimated that the annual cost to the health care system for retained surgical instruments is approximately $2.4 billion. Surgical instruments are left behind in only one in 5,500 surgeries, but the costs of repeat surgery and legal costs can be around $600,000 for just one mistake.

The University of Michigan has implemented the barcode technology, and says that there has not been a case of surgical instrument retention since doing so. Medical Center Hospital in Odessa, Texas, has also been using the barcoded sponges, called SurgiCount. The hospital began to look for a solution to the problem of retained instruments when they had three cases of retained sponges in one year.

While surgical errors are not common, they can be serious or even life threatening. Medical malpractice laws protect people who are injured by mistakes made by medical personnel, but not every medical error is considered malpractice. An attorney might be able to help someone who has been affected by a medical error to determine his or her legal rights.

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