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Study Highlights Uncommon But Serious Medical Error

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Surgery is like a symphony-- a team of doctors and nurses carefully orchestrating a delicate procedure. One of the most crucial parts of the operation comes at the end, when the surgery is drawing to a close.

Then comes the painstaking task of counting every single sponge, clamp, and needle used during a surgical procedure.

The Centers for Disease Control has counted 15,000 cases of objects being left in patients. These are medical errors that can have serious consequences.

Now a new study in the New England Journal of Medicine looks at who is most at risk for having something left behind after surgery.

Researchers from Harvard reviewed the medical records of 54 patients who had a retained sponge or instrument, and compared them to a control group of patients who underwent the same type of operation during the same time period.

They found the risk of having a retained sponge or instrument was greatest when the surgery was performed as an emergency, or there's an unplanned change in the procedure (which both show that disorganization makes it harder to keep track of materials), and when someone is obese, which means there's more room for something to get lost.

Their findings highlight an uncommon but dangerous form of medical error. Mistakes that could well be reduced by doing routine x-rays on high risk patients before leaving the operating room.

Metal instruments like a clamp are easy to see on a plain x-ray film. And every sponge and lap pad, large or small, comes with a blue tape or threat that would also be visible on x-ray.

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