Leaving a foreign object inside a patient is considered a “never event,” which the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services define as a preventable error that should never happen during the course of treatment. Despite its classification as such, leaving objects inside patients happens fairly often.
Officially called a “retained surgical item,” this scenario occurs in hospitals all over the country at least a dozen times per day. Once patients realize what has happened, they typically file a medical malpractice claim against their provider. Because retained surgical items are considered never events, physicians who face such claims can find it challenging to defend against them.
If No Damages Exist, the Patient Does Not Have Grounds for a Lawsuit
There are numerous scenarios that can result in retained surgical items. The most common is performing a procedure in a chaotic operating environment. When life-threatening complications arise, the surgical team is not concerned with tracking every last tool and sponge they use; instead, they are focused solely on stabilizing the patient.
Once the patient’s condition improves, it is up to the surgical team to account for each and every item that they used during the procedure. For an added layer of protection, the patient’s physician should order diagnostic imaging such as X-rays to confirm there are no foreign objects inside the patient. This is the single most effective way to avoid malpractice claims involving retained surgical objects short of inventorying every piece of gauze, sponge, and instrument used at each stage of the procedure.
A simple mistake on the part of a healthcare provider is not enough to warrant a medical malpractice lawsuit. In order for the patient to have grounds for a claim, he or she must prove that damages resulted from the error.
If it turns out that you did leave something inside a patient but you identified the mistake immediately after the procedure and removed the item before complications arose, it is unlikely that the patient could sue you for damages. Thus, surgeons can protect themselves by X-raying patients following invasive or complicated procedures.