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Though surgical tools like sponges are useful and help the surgeon perform operations, they are not supposed to be left in the patient’s body. When surgeons sew up patients with a sponge still inside, the patient can sustain internal injuries. They will likely need more surgery to remove the sponge, and they might die from this form of medical malpractice.

Surgical sponges are not like kitchen sponges. They are squares of gauze that absorb blood. Medical professionals have struggled for years to find a reliable way to keep track of all the sponges used during an operation, so that the surgeon removes them all before finishing up. But techniques like having a nurse keep count, X-raying the patient or using bar codes have not eliminated the problem.

Studies have estimated that patients are left with a sponge inside every 5,500 to 7,000 surgeries. One study concluded that this surgical error happens two times per year in every hospital. A hospital stay to remove a sponge and treat the damage reportedly costs an average of $63,631.

Researchers now believe they have found a technological solution. Instead of bar codes, their study used sponges with tiny microchips that can be detected by a wand or mat. The study found that this is the best and cheapest way to ensure that the patient is closed up with no unintended tools left behind.

Hopefully, innovations will continue to enter the market, so that sponges will someday no longer be a source of surgical error. But without a magic wand, surgeons are still expected to be careful to remove all foreign objects from the patient’s body.