Gossypiboma is a scenario that no patient, doctor, or hospital administrator even wants to think about. The term refers to the dangerous occurrence in which a medical sponge is left in a patient’s body after surgery. According to a report published in USA Today, it may be far more common than is currently imagined.

How frequent is Gossypiboma?

Ascertaining the incidence of Gossypiboma can be difficult for two reasons. First of all, it often takes months for symptoms associated with the condition to arise. Secondly, even when such errors are discovered, there is no national reporting mandate. Statistics vary wildly, therefore—and it is quite possible that instances of retained sponges are underreported. The United States government currently reports about 3000 annual cases, however, as USA Today points out, many academic sources—and even some information collected by the government—place that number between 4500 and 5000 cases per year.

What are the costs of Gossypiboma?

The data regarding the cost of Gossypiboma (at least when it is actually discovered) is a bit clearer. According to USA Today, the average hospitalization due to a retained sponge costs more than $60,000. Medicare refuses to pay the cost of such mistakes—and many patients choose to make up these costs through a lawsuit. The average cost of such cases ranges between $100,000 and $200,000. Of course, even more tragic is the cost in terms of human life: the consequences of a retained sponge can cause long-term disability and even death.

What can be done?

The USA Today report cited throughout this article ends on a more positive note: there is, in fact, a proven solution to this problem. The University of Indiana Health System responded to an escalating occurrence of Gossypiboma by installing tracking devices in their surgical sponges—thus allowing for more accurate control. At the time of publication, the UI Health system had not experienced a single case of Gossypiboma since switching to the new system.