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Medical Mistakes: How Do Surgical Sponges Get Left Inside Patient?

Updated on: 11/13/2019

We’ve recently begun exploring the concept of “never events,” a term for intolerable medical mistakes that take place in a healthcare setting. And while experts say these particular medical mistakes are absolutely inexcusable, they manage to occur frequently enough to cause concern – according to a study published in the December 2012 issue of Surgery, egregious medical mistakes occur almost 80 times every week in the U.S.

What is a Surgical Souvenir?

Examples of “never events” include wrong-site surgery, operating on the wrong patient, medication errors and more. One of the most seemingly negligent examples of a never event, however, is what many safety advocates are calling “surgical souvenirs,” or surgical tools left behind in a patient’s body after surgery.

The objects that can be left inside of a surgery patient range from scalpels to sponges, and once sealed back inside of a patient they can lead to infection and even cause internal damage.

Surgical souvenirs can be one of the most painful and devastating examples of medical mistakes for patients because of the internal discomfort that they can cause, in addition to the long-term effects and future treatment that will probably be required to correct the error. And many times, patients are left wondering how the doctor and nurses could have possibly been so negligent to leave a sponge inside of their body.

How Can a Surgical Sponge be Left Behind?

In surgery, doctors have a team of nurses to assist them with the numerous tasks at hand. One of the nurses is called a “scrub nurse,” whose sole duty is to collaborate with other nurses to keep track of how many instruments, needles and sponges are used throughout the procedure. This way, multiple people are responsible for keeping track of all the tools and bandages that are used during the surgery.

Often enough, however, the nurses will still lose track of the number of instruments on the table and before they even have a chance to realize their mistake, the doctor is already finished with the surgery.

For example, we handled one case where a clinician had unknowingly left a large surgical sponge inside of the patient. During the discovery process, the scrub nurse claimed without a doubt that she had counted the correct number of objects and that her assistants had done the same. However, the fact of the matter is that a sponge was left inside of the patient, who had to suffer multiple days of serious discomfort before finding out the doctor had accidentally left a surgical sponge behind.

Even when hospitals have safeguards like this in place to prevent medical mistakes and never events, patients are clearly still at risk of being victimized by hospital negligence. Victims of medical mistakes would be best served to consult with a medical malpractice attorney with experience in handling negligence claims against hospitals.

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