Few hospitals use surgical sponge tracking technology

Doctor holding his head

Any surgical tool that is closed up inside the patient’s body after surgery is called a retained foreign object. The most common object that gets left behind are the surgical sponges. These retained sponges make up two-thirds of all objects because they absorb blood and look like tissue. Once the procedure is over, the sponge may rest inside the system for months or even years without causing an issue, but eventually infection sets in and causes lifelong health issues and even death. Because counting manually has proven to be an inadequate method, technology has provided innovations that remedy the issue.

Sponge tracking technology eliminates retained sponges

One technological remedy places radio frequency identification tags, also known as RFID tags, in each sponge. At the end of the procedure, the nurse passes a scanner over the sponges and a computer registers the number to ensure patient safety. This procedure allows surgeons to close the wound more quickly because they are not waiting on a manual count and recount. Hospitals that use this technology have credited the system with eliminating retained sponge surgical errors entirely.

Another sponge counting technology uses barcodes and a device that tracks each sponge and displays the tally of the sponges going in and coming out of the surgical area. This system also displays the type and size of each sponge. As with the RFID system, this technology has also been praised by hospitals as a solution to the problem of retained sponges.

The devastating effects of retained sponges

The cost of these systems is less than the typical cost of one medical malpractice lawsuit, and the benefits to patients outweigh any initial financial burden. Even so, many hospitals claim the money to purchase and implement this technology takes too large of a percentage of the annual surgical budget and continue to use manual counts. USA Today reports that the number of American hospitals that use tracking technology on surgical sponges is less than 15 percent.

The average cost of the hospitalization and procedures to correct issues arising from a retained foreign object is over $60,000, and the bill is not always covered by insurance. Victims of retained sponges must not only deal with the physical, mental and emotional impact that the surgical error has caused but also face great financial challenges.

In Illinois, if the infection or cyst from the sponge or instrument does not cause problems within four years of the medical malpractice event, a statute of limitations may keep the patient from suing the hospital for financial damages. Because of the life-threatening issues and financial devastation that these types of surgical errors cause, patients who find themselves in this position should not delay seeking legal counsel.