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A careful inventory of instruments and sponges needed with surgeries

Sometimes during surgery a sponge or two will be inadvertently left behind and sewn up inside the patient. Hey – things happen!

I think of surgeons and their teams as meticulously focused on every detail of their work, but I expect the process is much more chaotic than any of us would like to imagine. This is evident from occasional reports of surgical instruments that aren’t removed during surgery.

The procedure for preventing this problem is simple: Take a careful inventory of instruments and sponges before the operation, again before the stitch-up begins, and once more when the surgery is finished. But according to an Ivanhoe Newswire report, it’s all too common for small sponges to be left inside surgery patients. Usually this isn’t a problem, but sometimes the sponges cause infections and obstructions.

The solution: Go high-tech.

A team from Stanford School of Medicine recently conducted a test of a new technique for detecting sponges. In eight surgeries, special sponges implanted with radio frequency identification chips were placed in an unsealed wound. Then a second doctor who didn’t know where each sponge was hidden used a scanning wand to search for the sponge. In all eight cases the sponges were quickly found.

But here’s the catch: In spite of the success of the radio sponges, the researchers note that this new technology can’t be considered foolproof, so even when it’s used, doctors and nurses will still need to inventory surgical materials, same as they do now.

So here’s my question: Isn’t surgery already expensive enough? Health care costs in the U.S. are wildly out of control. Do we really need to add an extra step that will come with a premium price tag?

And if these high-tech sponges do become a surgical standard, you know it will only be a matter of time before we hear about a surgery patient who’s opening and closing his garage door every time he sneezes.

“New Device Detects Foreign Sponges” Ivanhoe Newswire, 7/19/06,