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Surgical Tools Inside the Body

Each Chicago medical malpractice attorney at our firm knows that the “tool left in the body” is one of the classic (and egregious) examples of medical malpractice. It is sort of a textbook case, because it essentially only occurs as a result of obvious negligence, and therefore makes an easy demonstration of what a medical error might include. Some may reasonably suspect that this sort of mistake almost never happens. After all, how difficult is it to ensure foreign objects are not left inside a body?

Yet, most would be shocked to learn how common these errors occurs. Of course, the chance that any individual patient will have a tool left inside them during surgery is relatively small, but the total number of patients hurt by this problem remains substantial. For example, the Legal Examiner published a story on the problem and the glaring loopholes that remain when trying to get accountability for the mistake.

For one thing, contrary to misconceptions, it is actually quite easy for a tool of some kind to get lost in the shuffle of a surgery. Hundreds of instruments, towels, and other products are used in these procedures. Losing track of one during that during the process is not inconceivable.

However, when an instrument is left inside the body or unaccounted for, it would seem obvious that the patient needs to be made aware of that fact, right? Not so. In fact, as the article explains, in some cases unless the doctor specifically believes that the mistake will lead to an adverse event, the professional is not required to say anything about it or report the surgical error.

The article highlights the problem. A patient suffered severe complications following a laparoscopic surgery. A second “exploratory” was eventually needed. During that second surgery a small piece of surgical equipment was found. The doctor admitted that the left over equipment from the first surgery was likely the cause of the complications. In addition there was a small perforation that also must have been caused mistakenly as a result of the first procedure. Yet, in the report to the second surgery, the finding of the equipment was not included. Why? Because the surgeon did not believe it caused the patient an “adverse complications.”

The illogic of this statement became clear in a deposition for a subsequent medical malpractice lawsuit. Sadly, many locations have no reporting requirements for these “leaving a tool in the body” errors. There are certain federal standards and guidelines–often implemented by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. Yet, there are no federal guidelines regulating inclusion of items left in the body if the surgeon does not believe that the left tool caused an “adverse event.”

Those familiar with the situation, including Chicago medical malpractice attorneys, know that hospitals almost always only report events that they have to. Without mandates, hospitals are usually fine with allowing things to play out without a record of mistakes that might have been made. While this might help the facility avoid liability down the road, it means patients suffer without proper recourse.

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