Do surgeons really leave items behind in patients’ bodies?

Surgeons leaving behind watches, medical tools or other items in a patient has long been a punchline in modern media. The idea that a skilled and highly-trained professional could make such a staggering oversight seems ridiculous to most people.  

Obviously, surgeons should be incredibly careful about all of the tools and supplies present in an operating room so that they don’t put a patient at risk by misplacing something. Their support staff often have to track each individual piece of gauze and clamp to ensure they don’t overlook anything.  

 However, best practices and what happens in the real world often aren’t the same thing. Despite many systems aimed at preventing serious surgical errors, thousands of patients every year have consequences from foreign objects left inside their bodies after surgery. 

How often do surgeons leave items behind after a procedure? 

According to a report by the American Society of Anesthesiologists, between 4,500 and 6,000 people in the United States come out of surgery with a foreign object left behind in their bodies. Of those objects, roughly 70% are sponges, with the other 30% being almost exclusively other surgical tools, like clamps.  

That figure means that between 86 and 115 surgeries each week, on average, result in a surgeon or one of their assistants failing to retrieve an object in a patient’s body before they close the incision.  

What are the medical consequences of foreign objects? 

The kind of object left behind determines the risks a patient faces. Obviously, any foreign object inside your body could lead to an infection or to an intense immune response as your body tries to break down or otherwise attack what it knows should not be there.  

Even sponges, which may seem like a minor issue at first, could cause severe infection and lead to life-threatening medical consequences. Harder, metallic surgical tools could also cause infections or poisoning. They also pose a risk of traumatic injury to the tissue near the surgical site. People usually need to have a second procedure to remove the items, which can drastically increase their recovery time and put them at unnecessary medical risk.   

Understanding that surgical errors happen every week will make it easier to advocate for yourself if you suspect you have fallen victim to one.