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Counting Matters: Lessons from the Root Cause Analysis of a Retained Surgical Item

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Background: Retained surgical items (RSIs), such as a sponge, instrument, or needle, after a surgery or invasive procedure is an uncommon but potentially serious event associated with significant morbidity and mortality. A 27-year-old woman was discovered to have a retained vaginal sponge a week after she underwent the repair of a vaginal tear following normal vaginal delivery. The retained sponge was removed with no further complications.

Root Cause Analysis: The fundamental error involved the obstetric team's failure to perform the standard protocol of counting sponges before, as well as after, the procedure. This was attributed to a lack of reminders to perform the count, relatively recent implementation of the sponge-count policy, and a breakdown in teamwork and communication between physicians and nurses.

Corrective Actions: The corrective actions focused on systems improvement, as opposed to the human error of the memory lapse. The sponge-counting process was reinforced by incorporating a sign-out at the end of obstetric procedures to ensure that the counts have been done and any discrepancies addressed. A specialized delivery note with mandatory field to document sponge count was implemented in the electronic health record as an additional reminder. All staff participated in a teamwork and com munication training program.

Tracking Compliance: Since the incident's occurrence in 2010, the staff has demonstrated 100% compliance with the corrective actions, and a retained surgical item complication has not recurred.

Conclusion: Individual accountability must be balanced with systems improvement, given that most medical errors are a result of fallible humans working in chaotic, unpredictable, and complex clinical environment.

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: December 1, 2012

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  • Published monthly, The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety is a peer-reviewed publication dedicated to providing health professionals with the information they need to promote the quality and safety of health care. The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety invites original manuscripts on the development, adaptation, and/or implementation of innovative thinking, strategies, and practices in improving quality and safety in health care. Case studies, program or project reports, reports of new methodologies or new applications of methodologies, research studies on the effectiveness of improvement interventions, and commentaries on issues and practices are all considered.

    David W. Baker, MD, MPH, FACP, executive vice president for the Division of Healthcare Quality Evaluation at The Joint Commission, is the inaugural editor-in-chief of The Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Patient Safety.

    Also known as Joint Commission Journal on Quality Improvement and Joint Commission Journal on Quality and Safety
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