In 2008, a 47-year-old man had a cancerous kidney successfully removed. However, surgeons left two 11 x 14 inch surgical towels inside him - an error that led to serious medical complications, multiple surgeries and more than a year of recovery time.

According to the National Quality Forum, this kind of surgical mistake, known as a "retained object" incident, should never occur. Other such "never events" include wrong-site surgery and medication errors that can lead to patient death or disability.

The healthcare professionals at the VA medical center that treated the man have taken steps to make sure such "never events" don't happen again. After acknowledging the error and agreeing to a $275,000 settlement, the VA invested in a radiofrequency surgical detection system - a screening technology that detects foreign objects before an incision is closed.

Medical centers throughout the country are following suit, hoping to counteract stress, distraction and interruption during surgical procedures - all of which undermine staff efforts to accurately track and account for all surgical items.

Traditional Counting System is Flawed

Counting surgical items, a system known to be rife with error, often leads to a retained surgical devices. According to, it is estimated that this kind of surgical error happens in one of every 1,000 to 1,500 abdominal surgeries. A University of North Carolina study recently found that even with correct count, surgical items were still routinely left in patients following surgery

Distractions are often the cause. Studies show that counting discrepancies increase when a patient has experienced high-volume blood loss or when the medical intervention involves emergency surgery, prolonged surgery or nursing team changes.

New Tools Help Reduce Surgical Errors

Many techniques are being tried in an effort to reduce the number of retained surgical devices in patients. One new technology involves implanting surgical sponges with radio frequency tags, similar to those placed on clothing items and books in retail stores. Using a detection wand to scan the surgical site, nurses are able to detect if any sponges were left within the patient.

In addition to high-tech detection tools, hospitals are using other strategies to reduce errors and enhance patient safety. A mandatory x-ray following extensive or emergency procedures is an increasingly common safeguard, although even this technology is not foolproof.

Timing is critical when bringing a medical malpractice suit in New York. If you or a loved one has been injured due to surgical accident or error, it is important to contact an experienced New York City medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible.


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