About twice per year at the typical U.S. hospital, a surgical sponge or other object is left behind inside a patient's body during surgery. This estimate comes from a recent study by the National Center for Health Statistics, which found that an error of this type occurs in about one out of every 5,500 to 7,000 surgical procedures performed in the United States.

Surgical objects have been unintentionally left behind in incisions of all sizes and during nearly every type of surgery or other invasive procedure. However, these errors occur most frequently during surgeries to the abdomen, pelvis and chest, as well as during childbirth and other gynecological procedures.

The risk of retained object surgical errors is particularly high during emergency procedures, which often require surgical teams to work quickly in a chaotic environment, thus making them more likely to experience breakdowns in communication or lapses in safety protocol.


About two-thirds of retained object cases involve a misplaced or forgotten surgical sponge. Because sponges provide a hospitable environment for bacteria growth, sponges can cause major infections and other potentially severe or even fatal complications when left inside the body.

In addition to sponges, any number of other surgical items may be left behind inside a surgical site, such as clamps, scalpels, wires, needles or fragments of broken instruments. Retained surgical objects can result in abscesses and infections, internal bleeding, puncture or perforation of internal organs, intestinal obstructions and other problems which in some cases may lead to death.

Even if major complications are avoided, additional surgical procedures are often necessary to remove the retained object, thus exposing the patient to additional pain and suffering, increased recovery time and added risk of infection, as well as other risks inherent to any surgery.


Most hospitals have certain precautionary measures in place to help keep track of the sponges used during surgical procedures. However, these measures are not always effective. For example, although it is common practice for a member of the surgical team to be responsible for counting sponges as they are used and removed, the New York Times reports that all sponges were accounted for in approximately 80 percent of such cases.

High-tech electronic tracking methods show promise over traditional manual sponge-counting. For example, one such system relies on tiny radio-frequency tags, which are sewn into each sponge and allow the surgical team to scan for missing sponges before closing a surgical wound. Another method uses bar codes, which must be scanned upon use and again upon retrieval. Although effective and inexpensive, these methods are employed by only a small handful of hospitals nationwide.


When sponges and other surgical items are left behind inside a patient, the consequences can be devastating not only to the patient's health, but also to his or her financial wellbeing. According to a 2007 report by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the average hospital cost associated with removal of a retained object is nearly $64,000 per hospital stay. Medical malpractice settlements, which also account for lost income and other damages, can run into the millions in severe cases.

If you or a loved one has been harmed by a retained object surgical error or any other form of medical negligence, you may wish to consult with the medical malpractice firm of Linnan & Associates to learn about your legal rights and the options that are available to you for seeking compensation. Linnan & Associates is located at 150 State Street Suite 504, Albany NY.