A new study points to a promising technology for detecting gauze sponges left inside a surgical patient. Nearly two thirds of the approximately 3,000 annual cases of surgical items left behind involve sponges, which do not show up on post-op x-rays.


The study involved eight patients undergoing abdominal or pelvic surgery and was led by Alex Macario, MD, MBA, of Stanford University. Surgeons performed the procedures using gauze sponges tagged with 20 mm radiofrequency identification chips. Before closing the incision, one surgeon turned away while another placed a tagged sponge inside the patient. After the wound was closed, the surgeon then passed a handheld scanning device over the patient. The tagged sponge was located within three seconds, researchers reported in Archives of Surgery (2006;141:659-662).

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In a 2003 study, researchers examined 54 malpractice cases involving retained foreign objects. The most important risk factors for leaving surgical items behind were emergency situations, midsurgery changes in the operating plan, and obesity.


Other technologies to detect forgotten surgical hardware and soft fabrics currently being tested include sponges with bar codes or ones implanted with microscopic bits of metal that will respond to metal detectors.