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Bar-coded sponges could prevent surgical errors


Oregon hospitals sometimes pay a heavy price when items like sponges and surgical screws are left inside a patient’s body. In addition to possible malpractice awards and the associated premium hikes, medical facilities must often bear the costs of follow-up surgical procedures to remove the items in question. These expenses can add up to $600,000 or more, according to an executive at a leading medical device manufacturer.

These kinds of surgical errors occur about 11 times every day in the United States, and they cost the health care system about $2.4 billion each year. Sponges are the items left inside patients most of the time as they become soaked in blood during surgery and can be difficult to spot even under the bright lights of an operating theater. Surgeons often go through several sponges during a procedure, and keeping track of how many have been used is a challenge.

Several medical device manufacturers hope that technology can solve this problem. These companies have begun to embed their sponges with bar codes to help operating room teams monitor sponge use and prevent mistakes. Research has shown that the number of sponges used during surgery were miscounted in about 90 percent of surgical retention cases. The chief drawback of the new bar-coded sponges is their high cost compared to traditional sponges.

Patients often suffer prolonged pain or discomfort when a sponge has been left inside them during surgery, and they are often required to undergo further expensive procedures. In these situations, attorneys with medical malpractice experience might choose to file lawsuits against either the hospital or the doctors involved on a basis of a failure to exhibit the required standard of care.