Detecting what surgeons leave behind

Every day they're used to soak up blood during thousands of surgeries across the country. But in one in 1,500 surgeries, sponges disappear, left inside patients' bodies.

In up to 35 percent of those cases, the patient will die. But now there's an extra set of eyes to help surgeons see what they may be missing.

Lenny LeClair went to the hospital for a routine surgery. But he left much worse than he came in. A scan revealed doctors had left a gauze sponge inside Lenny during the surgery. It pierced his colon.

"It was like a septic tank in there,” said Lenny LeClair.

Lenny's case is not unusual.

"In the operating room, it's not uncommon, several times a month, the sponge count is incorrect," UC San Diego Surgeon Anthony Perricone, MD, said.

Until recently, unless surgeons re-opened the patient, there was no way of knowing if the missing sponge was left inside or put in the trash. Cardio-thoracic Surgeon Anthony Perricone is part of a new generation of doctors using an RF Sponge Detection System in the OR.

"This is the marker that's detected by the little wand," says Dr. Perricone. "So when you hear that, you know there is a sponge.

The next generation of sponge detection is this mat-which automatically scans the body and warns the surgeon of any sponges they forgot about.

New technology in the OR that helps surgeons see what they may have left behind, before it's too late.

A study finds sponges are left behind the most when patients are male or have a high BMI, or if their procedure is longer than four hours.

But here's a little peace of mind, more than 2,000 operating rooms in over 150 hospitals are using the RF Assure System for detecting sponges.


REPORT: MB # 3468

BACKGROUND: As many as 1 out of 1,000 people who undergo abdominal surgery end up in the recovery room with a foreign object mistakenly left inside them. In the medical community, these forgotten surgical tools are known as "retained foreign objects." The object most commonly left behind is the surgical sponge which is used to soak up fluids during surgery. Sometimes these forgotten sponges are not discovered for years, if at all. For decades, surgical teams have relied on counting - and recounting - the sponges, needles, blades, retractors, and other items used during operations.
Sponges left inside patients can cause infections and other complications. If left inside, the sponge usually has to be removed with another surgery. (Source: Time Magazine)

* 62% of retained surgical items were detected after the surgical count was reported as correct (Cima 2008)
* 76%-88% of all retained surgical objects involve falsely correct sponge counts
* 10%-15% of all retained objects involved having an X-ray
* Sponge counts do not match in 10% of major cases resulting in recounts and verifications
* Mortality related to RFO's ranges from 11% to 35%

LOST AND FOUND: RF Surgical Detection Technology uses a low energy radio frequency signal capable of locating misplaced surgical items prior to wound closure through blood, dense tissue, bone and performs well near metals. Each of the hospital's sponges, which actually are thin cotton cloths, has a thin, tiny chip embedded in a seam. The chip, which is about the size and shape of a grain of rice, emits a low-frequency AM radio signal. Doctors or nurses can detect the chip with a wand, a large plastic circle that plugs into a small box, waved over the patient. If there is a sponge still inside the patient, the wand will beep, and the surgeon will know approximately where the sponge is. The wand can detect a sponge up to two feet away. The wand can be used numerous times over 24 hours and then has to be discarded.

The sponge-detection technology is used on several categories of "high-risk" patients: Patients undergoing emergency surgery, obese patients, women giving birth and patients having surgery on more than one area of the body. (Source:


Emily Crump
MarComm Manager
(760) 822-8508

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