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Foreign Objects & Medical Malpractice

Quick: Name three places where you might find a sponge. You might think of a kitchen sink, a makeup case, or maybe the bottom of the ocean. Most likely, the last place you’d think of finding a sponge is: inside of you. Yet a forgotten sponge is a surprisingly common cause of medical malpractice suits.

Despite standard hospital procedures for keeping count of items used in surgery, sponges are just one of the implements that have been known to be left behind inside of a patient after a procedure ¾ along with clips, pins, needles, knife blades, cotton, gauze, fragments of wire or tubes, and even entire surgical instruments. (In one case, a doctor left a 13-inch tool inside a patient after cancer surgery.) In legal parlance, these medical misplacements are called retained foreign objects. Incidents involving retained foreign objects are the most common surgical mishap, with estimates ranging from a conservative one in 19,000 surgeries to a much more alarming one in 1,000.

Fortunately, as common as this medical error is, the law does not shrug it off as being all in a day’s work. In fact, just the opposite: Leaving a foreign object inside a patient is usually considered negligent by definition, under a legal doctrine called res ipsa loquitur. The Latin term translates as “the thing speaks for itself” — or as we might say in English: Leaving a sponge in someone’s body is negligent? No kidding!

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