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Retained Foreign Objects

Retained Foreign Objects Incidence

A retained foreign object is typically a surgical item that is accidentally left inside of a patient after surgery is completed. The most common item left behind in a patient is one or more surgical sponges. However, any item used during the surgery has the potential to be left or lost within the patient’s body. This includes:




Plastic retainers




Broken pieces of equipment

Any other surgical instrument or tool

Regardless of the actual retained item, nothing should ever be unintentionally left inside of a patient. Instances of retained foreign objects are known as NEVER EVENTS, meaning they should never happen. The medical community agrees that never events do not usually occur without some form of medical negligence.

How Often Are Items Left Behind After Surgery?

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 or abdominal surgery.

Retained objects are still the most frequently reported sentinel event according to the Joint Commission, to which hospitals report accidents and mistakes. The Joint Commission found as recently as 2018 that operative sponges and guidewires were common objects left behind in patients. Out of the additional 308 reports, over 100 were instruments and 33 were actual blades left inside of a patient!

This is terrifying enough before realizing that the number of reports made to the Joint Commission for retained objects and other hospital accidents and mistakes is only a fraction of those which actually occur.

What are the Complications of a Retained Foreign Object?

How Can Doctors and Hospitals Stop This From Happening?

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

  • 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.

In the past, hospitals have attempted to avoid retained surgical objects by just manually counting the resources used during surgery. A nurse typically keeps count of every sponge and all other tool used in surgery and the incision is not closed until everything is accounted for.

This method alone leaves room for human error, especially after long surgeries or complicated surgeries using hundreds of sponges that are easily miscounted.

Most retained surgical objects can be prevented through a combination of consistent protocols—such as checklists—including inventory of all medical products before and after the procedure, inspection of all medical products to be sure nothing is cracked or broken, use of safety procedures, limiting distractions in the operating room, and simply paying closer attention while operating.

Hospitals should use modern technology when it is available (such as RFID chip systems) to avoid the possibility of miscounting. This new technology creates a computerized inventory—like scanning groceries—and only adds an additional $8 to $12 to an operation. Unfortunately, only about 15% of hospitals and surgical centers have adopted the technology. They choose, instead, to rely on the old systems of counting. There is no excuse for this.

How Can We Help?

If you have been the victim of a retained foreign object, our firm has the background and the experience necessary to investigate and pursue your case. We will create a personalized, custom plan to discover exactly what happened and the extent of the injuries you’ve suffered.

At Van Wey, Metzler & Williams, we have over thirty years of experience in severe personal injury cases. Medical malpractice, including retained objects, is what we do, what we are passionate about, and we want to use that experience to help you get the justice you deserve. After suffering so much, let us take over fighting against the doctors and hospitals who allowed this to happen to you. Call us today for a free consultation or submit your information below.  

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