Are Retained Surgical Instruments Common?


Retained surgical instruments refer to metal implements, sponges and other items that may be left behind in the human body after surgery. These events are entirely preventable, yet the number of occurrences continues to grow in the United States. Items left behind after surgery can cause devastating consequences for the patient, including disability and death. The cost to hospitals and medical facilities can be destructive as well, in terms of both money and reputation.

Recent Increases in “Never Events”

Retained surgical items are often referred to as “never events,” based on the belief that these events are so preventable that they should never happen. Hospitals and medical facilities are understandably tight-lipped about these incidents; however two studies have provided clues that estimate surgeons leave items behind inside patients’ bodies in one out of every 6,975 surgeries performed in the United States*. Approximately two-thirds of these items are some form of surgical sponge. Other items that have been reported left behind include clamps, forceps, scopes, tubes and even safety pins. The most common reasons cited are exhaustion, poor tracking and inventory of surgical items, the chaotic nature of surgical procedures and unexpected complications.

The Devastating Effects of a Simple Surgical Sponge

During surgery, doctors and nurses commonly use gauze, towels and sponges, as well as metal surgical implements. The soft items are the most likely to be left behind and the most difficult to diagnose once the patient begins to experience negative reactions. Due to their soft nature, they don’t show up well on X-rays, and patients don’t experience a specific set of symptoms that might alert their doctor to the problem. Their effects can be disastrous, however, including infection, internal bleeding, organ perforation and even death.

Preventing Retained Surgical Items

Hospitals have implemented a variety of protocols to ensure that all equipment is accounted for before the patient’s surgical site is closed. Some are tracking equipment using scannable bar codes, but many still rely on the manual counting of items before and after the procedure. Because human error remains a factor, this problem requires ongoing evaluation and improvement.

Surgeons argue that they must focus on the patient’s well-being rather than procedure, and repeated counting of instruments requires keeping the patient under anesthesia longer, also posing an increased risk. If complications arise during surgery, the surgical team must scramble to react to the situation. These conditions create a perfect environment in which mistakes can be made.

The professional attorneys of Rasmussen and Miner specialize in helping Utah residents who have been the victims of medical malpractice. Contact them today if you or a loved one has suffered ill effects or complications from retained surgical instruments.