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Thousands of patients suffer from left-behind surgical items

Here in New Haven, we rightfully expect that our doctors know what they are doing when we go in for routine care or a cold. If we need an operation, that trust we place in our care providers is amplified. After all, doctors have gone through years of training and practice to be able to confidently and accurately operate on a patient. Unfortunately, recent studies show that patients may have some cause for concern.

The alarming problem does not lie in the operation itself so much as what happens after. Doctors use a number of tools and other items during surgery, including clamps and sponges to soak up blood. Sometimes, doctors forget to remove an item before closing up a patient. After looking through government data and other studies, USA Today found that thousands of people are affected by this issue annually.

In the medical community, leaving a surgical tool or item in a patient after surgery is considered a "never event" -- as in it should never happen. Still, up to 6,000 people a year leave a hospital with a surgical item still inside them. While many don't feel the effects immediately, months later, some patients wind up in agonizing pain with no clue why. After seeking medical attention, they realize that a left-behind sponge has become embedded in their intestines, leading to another surgery and more hospital time. In the worst cases, patients have died from the damage caused by a left-behind surgical item.

Fortunately, there are ways to prevent medical negligence like this from occurring. Since traditional sponge counts have proven inaccurate much of the time, new sponges have been outfitted with tracking devices so doctors will know right away if a sponge is missing. Other hospitals use sponges labeled with bar codes that get scanned before being used on a patient. Although both have shown high success rates, most hospitals do not use them.

While we hope that hospitals will see the benefit in paying a little extra to keep patients safer, right now, many patients still suffer from preventable errors like left-behind sponges. In such cases, it may be beneficial to consider a medical malpractice lawsuit.

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

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