IU Health is one of a small percentage of hospital systems across the country that have invested in technology that would help prevent surgical sponges from being lost in patients’ bodies.
Surgical sponges left inside patients can create a potentially dangerous and deadly result. Still, the mistakes have been made in plenty of Indiana hospitals, some who have not made more recent investments in preventative technologies.
“They do the right thing most of the time,” said Lynn Bridgewater, Director of Operations and Perioperative Services at IU Health Methodist Hospital.
Bridgewater said her employees make mistakes, but they are leaving little room for errors involving surgical sponges in recent years.
IU Health spent more than $250,000 at three hospitals on radio frequency tracking devices that detect sensors implanted in surgical sponges. An additional $8 investment is also required during every surgery.
“Six years ago, we had 13 incidents of retained sponges, and one was too many,” said Bridgewater, who claims they also count instruments and other tools, a long-time practice.
A sponge left inside a body can cause a serious infection that may not be discovered right away.
“It’s a clear breach, a very clear act of negligence,” said Caroline Gilchrist, a medical malpractice attorney with Baker and Gilchrist in Avon.
She has had two sponge cases in recent years. She could not specifically talk to either case, claiming the cases were settled outside of court and confidentiality agreements were signed.
These incidents got real attention in Indiana when an executive order was signed requiring all hospitals and surgery centers to report if any foreign object is left inside a body.
There has been a slight decline in the amount of cases overall statewide, and some experts attribute the improvement to fewer sponge-related incidents.
“Everybody makes mistakes. The question is are you going to stand up and take responsibility for that,” said Gilcrhist.
“Hospitals are well aware that they need to report these things, but it does have a definition that must be met before its reportable, and there are some exclusions,” said Betsy Lee with the Indiana Hospital Association.
She claims not every hospital needs to make the expensive technology investment. There are other options.
An Indiana hospital can be responsible for up to $250,000 in damages if a mistake is made., though.
“It’s not a lot. In fact, that small investment is what helps me sleep at night,” said Bridgewater of the hospitals investment in the special sponges.
She added that they have had no incidents of sponges being left inside patients in five and a half years. That is when the hospital went through with the changes.