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Retained Surgical Item After Surgery Attorneys

What is a Retained Surgical Item?

A retained surgical item, also known as a retained foreign object, is any item accidently left in a patient after surgery is completed. Over two-thirds of retained surgical items are sponges. However, other items such as clips, plastic retainers, surgical instruments, wires, swabs, gauze, or broken pieces of equipment may be left behind. Most retained surgical items are lost in body cavities such as the abdomen or pelvis.

How Often Are Items Left Behind After Surgery?

Retained surgical items are the most common and most expensive “Never Event” in American medical centers. Each year, an estimated 4,000 items are unintentionally left inside a patients’ bodies. Mayo Clinic has determined that an item is left behind in 1 out of every 5,500 operations. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, a patient has a 1 in 1500 chance of having an item left inside during a chest abdominal surgery.


A retained surgical object can result in serious injury, extensive hospitalization, and death. According to the Joint Commission, 95% of voluntarily reported retained surgical items required additional care and/or an extended hospital stay. Several patients died. The average retained object causes $60,000 in related medical bills.

A forgotten or abandoned sponge or surgical instrument can lead to several serious medical conditions such as:

  • Infection
  • Serious pain
  • Internal bleeding
  • Sepsis (blood poisoning)
  • Injury requiring removal of the intestines
  • Local tissue reaction
  • Perforation or obstruction of blood vessels
  • Foreign body granuloma
  • Acute nerve lesions
  • Tumors
  • Abscesses
  • Cysts
  • Formation of gallstones
  • Immune system disruption
  • Death

How Do Things Get Left Behind?

Most retained surgical objects can be prevented through carefulness, a thorough and accurate inventory, and adequate safety procedures. Unfortunately, human error causes disaster far too many times every day.

Traditionally, hospitals have attempted to avoid retained surgical objects through manually counting the resources used during surgery. A nurse typically keeps count of every sponge and other tool used in surgery. The incision is not closed until everything is accounted for. However, this method is subject to human error. Long surgeries or complicated surgeries using hundreds of sponges may result in a miscount. If this count is wrong, doctors may close an incision despite leaving a sponge or tool behind. In fact, of missed sponges are lost after an incorrect sponge count.

The Joint Commission, an independent non-profit organization that oversees health safety, has found several common root causes of retained surgical items. These include:

  • Absence of policies and procedures
  • Failure to comply with policies and procedures
  • Problems with hierarchy and intimidation within the surgical team
  • Failures of surgical team to communicate with each other
  • Failure to communicate with the patient.
  • Incomplete staff education

Other potential causes for retained surgical items include

  • Pieces of defective equipment getting lost
  • Misinterpretation of x-rays
  • Insufficient wound examinations
  • Failure to record that a tool was being used

How Can Items Left in the Body After Surgery Be Prevented?

In order to make sure that nothing gets left behind, hospitals must ensure that they have a reliable system to ensure that all items are identified and accounted for. A hospital should have procedures for counting supplies, opening wounds, and when to close wounds. Checklists may be used to ensure that everything is properly accounted for. Medical centers should avoid using low-quality or old equipment which may break inside patients.

Hospitals can utilize modern technology to avoid the possibility of a miscount due to human error. This can be done through bar codes or RFID chips. Hospitals which use the bar code system scan each sponge before it is used and when it is taken out to ensure that everything is accounted for. RFID tags utilize a rice-sized chip that emits a radio signal in surgical objects to ensure that nothing is left behind.

When properly used, these technology procedures, can eliminate nearly all retained object cases. A simple 12-second RFID scan can not only indicate that a sponge is missing, but even help pinpoint where it is. A University of North Carolina study showed that the system helped them discover 23 forgotten sponges over a course of 11 months.

Electronic sponge tracking systems add an average of $8 to $12 to each operation. However, only about 15% of hospitals and surgical centers have adopted the technology. Most medical centers still rely on old-fashioned counting.

Are You a Victim of A Surgical Item Being Left In Your Body?

Our firm has the background and experience to investigate and pursue cases when a surgical item was left inside a patient’s body. In order to investigate and build your case, we will create a customized plan to figure out what happened and the extent of your injuries. Most of the time, this means getting your medical records quickly, having the records reviewed by an expert, and using legal processes to get answers from your healthcare providers. It will include searching for all damages including medical bills, future expenses, and lost wages. We work tirelessly and use our experience to get you the best chance at the best outcome.


If you believe that a doctor, nurse, or other member of your surgical team left an item behind, contact Gupta Law Group for a FREE case evaluation today. We help people and families throughout Illinois and Indiana with medical malpractice and medical negligence law issues. Contact us today for help.

Cases are taken on a contingency fee basis. You pay nothing unless your case is successful and results in compensation.