The dangers of retained surgical items – can I make a medical negligence claim?

by Tim Bishop on June 28, 2013

The pain, exhaustion and anxiety you feel following surgery can be very difficult to deal with. Not only have you undergone an invasive procedure, but you also face a difficult recovery period, which will, in all likelihood, require time off work incapacitated. So, imagine how difficult it is to discover that something has gone wrong – that a surgeon has negligently left a surgical instrument inside your body and as a result you are put in great danger.

Although the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence states that it should never happen, retained surgical item (RSI) claims – whereby a medical professional leaves a medical instrument inside the patients body following surgery, which results in a claim for medical negligence compensation – are seen every year. These items vary in nature and size, but whichever item it is will inflict significant physical damage to the unfortunate patient. Sponges are the single most common item left inside a patient following surgery – but swabs, scalpels, scissors, suction tubes, clamps and many other items have been noted in RSI claims in the past and the only explanation for these being left inside the body is medical negligence.

Very simple measures can be taken to prevent unnecessary RSI claim to compensation and yet we still see several hundred of such cases in the UK each and every year. Surgeons and their medical support teams are expected to count all surgical items before surgery, to check to see how many items have been used at regular intervals during surgery, and count all items once again at the end of the surgery. Pretty basic stuff you would have thought – just the sort of basic addition, which in early years, primary school child could deal with successfully. Furthermore, standard protocol requires that the patient must not be sewn up until all items are accounted for. In addition, technology is now readily available which can scan the body post surgery to check for any RSIs – but it seems that despite the very real risk, many hospitals are either not buying such equipment or not using it correctly.

Amongst the most common and possible consequences for patient health in retaining a surgical item are the following:

• Severe illness

• Almost certain infection

• Possible organ or tissue damage

• Excruciating pain

• Internal bleeding

What’s perhaps most remarkable of all, is not that these sort of items are left inside the patient’s body after surgery – but the scale. Whilst there are no accurate figures, there have been some very interesting research papers done on the subject. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic discovered that between 2003 and 2006, the rate of retained retained surgical items was as high as 1 in every 5,500 surgical procedures.

The victim of a retained surgical item may not begin to feel these sort of symptoms until weeks after the initial surgical procedure – which can make it more difficult for doctors to work out why the patient is feeling so very unwell.

However, once a retained surgical item has been identified, the patient will need to go through the trauma of a second surgery and may have already suffered irreparable damage. It is therefore only right that they are able to make a claim for medical negligence compensation for the terrible danger they are put in.

Tim Bishop is senior partner of specialist medical negligence solicitors, Bonallack and Bishop. For help with a medical negligence claim, phone their  team directly on 01722 422300 or for more information, pay a visit to their specialist website at




Tim Bishop
Having qualified as a Solicitor in 1986, Tim Bishop is a legal entrepreneur who owns leading law firm Bonallack & Bishop Solicitors. Find out why you should choose Bonallack & Bishop Solicitors: Visit
Tim Bishop

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