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New Technology Designed to Prevent Retained Surgical Sponges

Last April, we posted a blog entitled “What Steps Do Hospitals Take to Avoid Retained Surgical Items?” While this remains a necessary component of patient safety in the OR, new technologies have been released in recent years to further minimize this risk. These new technologies are an important step to help prevent these surgical “never events” from happening. These technologies include computer-assisted sponge count devices, radiofrequency detection systems, and radiofrequency identification systems.

The computer-assisted sponge count devices are designed to “count” sponges by scanning matrix labels attached to each sponge as they go in and out of the patient’s body. Each sponge has a unique identifier that enables the machine to know which type of sponge is missing and then relay that information to the surgical team. The downfall with this technology is that it merely helps to keep track of whether a sponge is missing. It fails to let the surgical team know where the sponge is located (i.e. is it in the patient’s body, elsewhere in the OR, etc.).

A radiofrequency detection system is one that includes a small passive radiofrequency tag attached to every sponge, in addition to a handheld wand or mat that contains an antennae/detection system. This is an incredibly important tool because it allows the surgical team to pass a wand over a patient to determine if there are any sponges left inside the patient. This technology can be used in addition to a counting team when the count is not correct, or simply as a last second check before closing the patient. The downfall with this system is that it can merely identify that a sponge is present and cannot determine what kind or how many.

Finally, the radiofrequency identification system works in a similar manner as the radiofrequency detection system, but it is much more comprehensive. This technology also places radiofrequency tags in each sponge, but they are uniquely identified so that the sponges may be individually counted based on number and type. Importantly, this allows surgical teams to identify not only that a sponge may be present inside the patient’s body, but it also allows them to determine how many and what type of sponges they need to find. While this technology is the most comprehensive and provides many benefits, its downfall is that the unique chips places in each sponge are too large to be used in certain medical equipment, such as MIS trocars, which limits how often it can be used.

These technological advancements are important steps to ensure the safety of every patient undergoing surgical procedures. While there are certainly limitations and work remains to be done, it is encouraging that the medical community is taking steps to prevent these very avoidable complications.


If you or someone you know may be a victim of medical negligence that occurred as a result of a retained surgical sponge or foreign object, please contact our office today to see if we may be of assistance to you.