By Kim Smiley
For about two months after surgery to remove a large malignant tumor Donald Church complained of severe pain. Initially, he was told that it was normal pain associated with recovery from a major surgery, but an x-ray was ordered after his physician felt a lump in his abdomen. The x-ray revealed that a malleable retractor similar in size to a ruler had been left inside his body after surgery. A second surgery was done to remove the tool. Mr. Church is not expected to suffer long-term health consequences and received a $97,000 settlement.
A Cause Map, a visual format for performing a root cause analysis, can be built to help understand how this issue happened. Once all the causes that contributed to an issue are found, potential solutions can be found and the most promising can be implemented to help reduce the risk of a similar issue reccurring.
So how did this happen? How does a large surgical tool get left inside a patient? This occurred because the patient needed surgery to remove a tumor, the malleable retractor was used during the surgery and the surgeons were unaware that the tool remained inside the patient. (These causes are vertical on the Cause Map with “and” between them because all 3 were necessary for the issue to happen.) A malleable retractor was used while the wound was being closed to help protect the organs under the wound from possible puncture from the suturing needle.
The surgeon was unaware that the tool was inside the patient because he couldn’t see it and there wasn’t an adequate system in place to manage surgical tools. Malleable retractors are normally held partly out of the wound, but it had slipped entirely inside the wound during the surgery. Once the tool was out of sight, it was forgotten. While many hospitals have requirements to formally count surgical tools as they enter and leave the operating room to ensure that all are accounted for, there wasn’t a policy in place in the facility that performed the surgery at the time. With no formal system to track tools, there weren’t any easy indications to the operating team that there was a problem.
While this is a particularly egregious example, there are an estimated 4,000 cases of retained surgical items each year in the United States. Better solutions need to be found to reduce the risk of this preventable and potentially deadly problem from happening. A simple solution to reduce the risk for retained surgical items is to institute a formal procedure for counting surgical supplies and tools before and after surgery. Simple manual counts are a first step, but errors still occur, especially in the often hectic and stressful environment in an operating room. Some hospitals use a visual inventory system where tools are brought in a special storage bag with an individual compartment for each item. As items are done being used they are put back into their specific spot. If all compartments are full, everything is accounted for so it’s easy to tell if something is missing.
Another solution that is gaining in popularity is use of an electronic tracking system. The most common use of electronic systems is to track sponges, which are by far the most common object left inside patients. Each sponge has an electronic tag and the patient is scanned after surgery to verify that none were left behind. Sponge tracking systems add about $8 to $12 to the cost of each surgery and have dramatically reduced the number of retained sponges when used.
To view a high level Cause Map, click on “Download PDF” above.