By, Richard P. Hastings, Connecticut Surgical Malpractice Attorney
In an article published in July, 2008, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (“AHRQ”) reported sponges, needles or surgical instruments are left in a patient’s body an estimated 1 in every 7,000 surgeries which could be the basis for a surgical malpractice or medical malpractice case.
Instruments are counted by nurses before an operation commences and after the operation has been performed prior to closure of the incision. However, the AHRQ notes staff fatigue, changing teams and interruptions can prevent an accurate count.
The AHRQ calculated there is a 1.6 percent chance of an instrument being left in a patient. This estimation was based on the low number of reported cases where an instrument was left in the patient versus the odds increasing 113-fold that a foreign object was retained in the patient when the final account was contradictory.
The AHRQ goes on to say that physicians must make a choice whether it is beneficial to delay closure of the operation site, increasing the patient’s risk of infection, or conduct further tests or searches for the missing object based on the 1.6 percent chance it is in the patient’s body. It notes that doing additional searches increases the costs of surgery.
Surgery involves use of multiple instruments and supplies. A partial list of items which might be left in a patient’s body are:
• Scopes and probes
A study that followed 54 patients with retained surgical instruments in their bodies indicated the thirty-seven of these patients required a further operation to remove sponges or surgical instruments. One patient died.
Surgical instruments left inside the body have the potential to cause internal bleeding by puncture of organs or blood vessels. Sponges and gauze may fester inside the body leading to serious infections. The statute of limitations, the time within which a lawsuit may be commenced, begins to run on the day the surgical error was made. However, if the patient is unaware a surgical error occurred during their surgery, the statute of limitations may start, or be tolled and/or extended, from the date they discovered they have an instrument left in their body.
In this case, the patient has to seek medical attention as soon as they have pain. If they delay seeing a doctor about the pain, the statute of limitations may be limited and might commence on the day they first had pain regardless, suggesting the date when it should have been discovered, rather than from the date when they sought medical treatment.
Sometimes it is many months or even years before pain or ill health makes it evident a surgical error happened. Risk factors for retention of surgical instruments in a patient’s body increases with emergency surgery, an unanticipated change during the operation and a high body-mass index.
Patients who experience surgical instruments left in their body will undergo pain, possible further surgery, serious health consequences and incur expenses in what might be a long process to remove the object and recover their health.
These patients should seek immediate legal advice from an experienced medical malpractice attorney. To delay may prevent them from suing for compensation for pain and suffering because of expiration of the statute of limitations.