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Watch out for retained surgical objects
Every week in the United States, including Georgia, an estimated 39 surgical patients emerge from surgery with something left behind that doesn’t belong inside the patient.

Georgia residents depend on their physicians and other medical caregivers when they are injured or ill. If surgery is required, patients expect medical staff to see them through the operation and recovery with careful attention to every detail. What patients do not deserve or expect is a surgical error to be made by their caregivers that leads to further complications.

When surgeons fail to finish the job

According to researchers at the Johns Hopkins University, every week in the United States, including Georgia, an estimated 39 surgical patients emerge from surgery with something left behind that doesn’t belong inside the patient. This can happen if doctors close a surgical incision without checking thoroughly, and some object is not removed. In about 80 percent of cases, the object is a surgical sponge, but other items like instruments and needles have also been left inside patients.

The total comes to about 2,000 retained object incidents a year, which some experts say is small compared with the number of surgeries performed. However, for a person who experiences a retained object after surgery, it is no small matter at all.

One young man was rushed into surgery after being struck by a bullet that damaged his kidney and ended up in his spine. Although surgeons were able to repair the kidney, the young man kept getting bladder infections and had recurrent pain. Finally the urologist ordered a scan, which revealed a sponge that had been left in during the emergency surgery.

The young man had to undergo a second operation and was laid up for another six weeks. The discovery of the retained sponge came three years after the first surgery.

Many other patients have similarly experienced pain, infections and other complications due to retained objects and have had to undergo additional debilitating surgeries.

Preventing the mistakes

In 2008, Medicare stopped reimbursing hospitals for the costs of correcting retained object mistakes in surgery. Medicaid announced in 2011 that it would also cease to pay hospitals for these errors.

As additional motivation for hospitals to employ policies to prevent surgical errors, states are penalizing the offending hospitals. In California, the state’s Public Health Department is considering revising its rules to allow hospitals to be fined even if a patient is not seriously harmed by a retained surgical object.

Hospitals must institute procedures to rigorously keep track of the medical objects used during surgery. New technologies are available, including a system for scanning surgical sponges electronically and tracking the count of sponges used to avoid inadvertently leaving one in a patient.

Health care professionals and institutions must be held accountable when their mistakes injure the patients who put their trust in medical providers. The Johns Hopkins researchers analyzed medical malpractice judgments and settlements over the twenty-year period ending in 2010, finding that 4,860 cases involved retained surgical items. These cases are the tip of the iceberg.

Georgia residents who have experienced negligent treatment by medical caregivers can file a suit for medical malpractice. Proving malpractice and obtaining the maximum benefit possible for the patient is a complex task that requires the skills of an experienced Georgia medical malpractice attorney. It is worthwhile to consult with an attorney if there is any reason to believe medical treatment was not competently provided.

Keywords: surgical objects, medical malpractice
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