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Technology Targets Left Behind Surgical Sponges

A study published recently in the Archives of Surgery found that the same technology used to prevent shoplifting is effective in detecting gauze sponges left behind in patients after surgery.

In 3,000 of the 40 million surgeries performed annually in the United States, somebody leaves something behind – sometimes scissors, scalpels, needles, or pins but primarily gauze sponges.

When left behind, a gauze sponge can cause intestinal blockage, abscess, sepsis infection, and even death. And unlike metal objects that might be left behind, gauzes do not show up on x-rays.

“A sponge can erode into the bowel, begin to extrude through the skin, rub against the heart causing irritation. Or they can be completely silent,” said Dr. Verna Gibbs, a surgeon at the University of California, San Francisco.

Now researchers are optimistic about the potential of an electronic device to detect sponges with merely the wave of a wand, which emits radio signals that are picked up by a tiny identification chips attached to the sponge.

The study tested the effectiveness of the wand in finding tagged sponges in eight patients undergoing abdominal or pelvic surgery. Researchers found that the wand was 100 percent effective without producing false results.

“When we started, we were concerned about the technological part of the problem. But our study found the device works 100 percent of the time,” said Dr. Alex Macario, lead author of the study.

Still, Dr. Macario is apprehensive about the risk of human error in using the device. “We need a system that is fail-safe, where regardless of how people use this technology the patient doesn’t leave the operating room with a retained sponge,” he said.

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