Surgical errors have attracted widespread attention over the past several years, leading to new laws and policies. In 2007, California started requiring hospitals to report certain errors and fining them if the mistakes killed or seriously injured patients.
The next year, Medicare stopped paying hospitals for the costs associated with certain errors. In 2011, Medicaid announced that it also would stop paying to fix certain preventable mistakes.
Nevertheless, about 2,000 patients nationwide have surgical material inadvertently left behind each year during operations. The errors have occurred during all types of procedures, including knee replacements, caesarean sections and gallbladder surgeries. The most common item left behind is a surgical sponge, but doctors have also left needles, gauze and other instruments inside patients.
A recent study by Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine researchers estimated that surgeons leave sponges or other items inside patients about 39 times a week. The researchers analyzed medical malpractice judgments and out-of-court settlements on preventable hospital errors between 1990 and 2010 and identified about 4,860 malpractice payments connected to surgical items left behind. Only a fraction of the cases result in malpractice judgments.