About 80 times each week, U.S. patients undergoing surgery experience mistakes that safety advocates say never should happen. They're called "Never Events," but these events are happening far too often and costing patients significant pain and suffering. The types of errors being made: Surgical instruments such as sponges are unintentionally left behind in the patient; a wrong procedure is performed; a wrong surgical site is operated upon; surgical equipment is not properly sterilized and surgery is done on the wrong patient altogether.
There's no federal reporting requirement when hospitals leave sponges or other items in patients, but research studies and government data suggest it happens between 4,500 and 6,000 times a year. That's up to twice government estimates, which run closer to 3,000 cases, and sponges account for more than two-thirds of all incidents.
Fewer than 15% of U.S. hospitals use sponges equipped with electronic tracking devices, based on a USA TODAY survey of the companies that make those products.
Hospitalizations involving a lost sponge or instrument average more than $60,000, according to data compiled by Medicare, which denies payment for costs stemming from such errors. Related malpractice suits cost hospitals, on average, between $100,000 and $200,000 per case, several research studies show.
A decade ago, a landmark report on health care quality ranked lost sponges and instruments in the most serious category of medical errors. Issued by the National Quality Forum, a congressionally funded non-profit, the report urged immediate steps to drive down incidence rates, including mandatory reporting to track cases.
Today, there still is no national reporting mandate, and the available data suggest little or no progress in curbing incidence rates, particularly for sponges.