At first, it sounds completely implausible: a forgetful surgeon accidentally sews up a patient while a medical object is still inside their body. It might sound like a scene from a sitcom, but it’s no laughing matter. This phenomenon, known as unintended retention of foreign objects (URFO), affects an estimated one out of every 5,500 surgical patients in the United States. If you’ve recently undergone surgery, you should learn about the warning signs of surgical object retention so that you can seek treatment before it becomes a life-threatening event. If your surgeon made a mistake when he or she operated on you, you may be able to get compensated for medical malpractice.

How Often Do Surgeons Forget Objects Inside of Patients?

All of us would like to believe that doctors and surgeons are infallible. We trust these people with our very lives, and none of us want to consider that a careless error could disable or kill us. Unfortunately, as we discussed in a previous article, doctors make millions of mistakes every year.

medical malpractice

These mistakes are as varied as the medical field itself. Depending on the type of doctor, illness, and procedure involved, some common examples include:

URFO occurs less frequently than these types of errors, but is common enough to be cause for concern. As we already noted, one medical textbook from 2013 (Making Healthcare Safer II) found an URFO incidence rate of one per 5,500 surgical procedures. A few years earlier, in 2010, the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants published a study claiming that URFO was the fourth most commonly reported medical error in the U.S. in 2008, with an incidence rate of one out of every 7,000 surgical procedures.

In 2013, the Joint Commission published an analysis stating that 772 incidents were reported from 2005 to 2012. (However, the analysis also noted that these reports were voluntary, and thus underrepresented the true number of incidents.) Among the 772 incidents reported to the Commission, 16 (2.1%) resulted in wrongful death. While the remaining 756 incidents (97.9%) were non-fatal, the vast majority – about 95% – necessitated further medical treatment.

This treatment comes at great financial, emotional, and physical cost. As the Joint Commission noted in its analysis, “The Pennsylvania Patient Safety Authority estimated that the average total cost of care related to an URFO is about $166,000.” A study published in Surgery in 2009 was less conservative in its estimate, calculating the average care cost to be closer to $200,000. In addition to being burdened with tremendous expenses, the patient may also:

  • Develop anxiety, depression, or phobias.
  • Experience medical complications from the corrective surgery.
  • Have to let go of a marriage or career due to physical impairment caused by the URFO or corrective procedure.
  • Red Flags for Unintended Retention of Foreign Objects (URFO)

According to Healthcare II, the items most likely to be left inside of patients were sponges, accounting for about 68% of all URFO cases. Other commonly retained items included:

  • Catheters
  • Needles
  • Retractors
  • Towels
  • Wires

The dangers of a forgotten needle or pair of scissors is obvious: bowel perforation or the puncture of other organs. However, danger to patients is not dependent upon the shape or rigidity of the foreign object. Even the softest, fluffiest piece of gauze can has the potential to lead to a deadly infection. In fact, Healthcare II noted that infection was the greatest risk associated with URFO, since sponges and gauze are more likely to be retained than sharp surgical tools. Therefore, surgical patients should not dismiss the possibility of URFO simply because they underwent a minor or non-invasive procedure.

It is normal to experience some pain and discomfort following surgery, and your surgeon should have prepared you for exactly what to expect during recovery. This article is in no way intended to replace medical advice from your physician. That being said, you should contact your doctor immediately if you have noticed any of the following symptoms, which can be warning signs of URFO (or other serious post-operative complications):

  • Bowel movements appear to be black, bloody, or tar-like.
  • Constipation or difficulty urinating, which could indicate a blockage.
  • Coughing up blood or vomiting blood.
  • Development of an abscess or fistula.
  • Difficulty with basic functions like breathing, swallowing, or eating.
  • Drainage or streaks near or emanating from the incision.
  • Overall decline in health (e.g. increasing weakness or fatigue). Post-operative pain and weakness should lessen, not intensify, as time passes.
  • Severe pain in the area where you had the surgery. Pain may be constant or intermittent.
  • Severe headaches or severe leg pain, which can both indicate a blood clot.
  • Swollen lymph nodes. Lymph nodes are spread throughout the body, but are concentrated in the armpits, groin, and neck.
  • Symptoms of infection, which can include:
    • Discoloration
    • Fever/Warmth
    • Pus
    • Soreness/Tenderness
    • Swelling
  • The incision begins to tear or come apart.

Medical stethoscope and syringe

Doctors understand that laypeople are not medical experts, and a good doctor will be eager to address any concerns you might have about your recovery process, no matter how small or unusual. When your health is at stake, there is no such thing as a dumb question. Please do not hesitate to seek medical help right away if you think something is wrong, especially if you have experienced any of the effects listed above. When the choice comes down to bugging your doctor and saving your life, it isn’t a choice at all.

If you believe you were injured by a negligent surgeon or doctor, you may have grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit. To discuss your concerns in a free, private, no-obligation legal consultation, call Philadelphia injury lawyer Brent Wieand at (800) 481-5206 today.