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Can Technology Stop Surgeons From Leaving Sponges Inside Patients?

When doctors sewing up a patient after an operation inadvertently leave surgical equipment like sponges inside the body, the result can harm or even kill the patient. Such mistakes also cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in further treatment and legal costs. Along with taking out the wrong kidney or operating on the wrong person, leaving a sponge in a patient is the kind of avoidable medical nightmare that health-care quality experts consider a never event—that is, it should never happen.

It’s hard to know precisely how often it does. A review at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., from 2003 to 2006 found a rate of about one “retained foreign object” case for every 5,500 surgeries. Another analysis of 20 years of malpractice settlements found that such incidents were the most common “never events,” with an estimated 2,024 claims per year, or a rate of more than five each day. The U.S. has no comprehensive system for measuring how often doctors mistakenly leave items in patients’ bodies. The lack of data itself is revealing, when you consider, for example, how scrupulously aviation accidents are tracked.