All The 'Foreign Objects' Mistakenly Left Inside Patients After Surgery

Doctors class this kind of incident as a “never event” – as in, it should never have happened.
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Swabs, gauze, and surgical devices, including drill bits... these are just some of the objects left inside patients last year during operations or procedures.

A record number of people have needed help after a surgical tool was left inside them by medical professionals, according to new hospital data.

Mistakes involving a “foreign object accidentally left in the body during surgical and medical care” led to a record 291 “finished consultant episodes” – ie. where extra support was needed – in 2021/2022.

This is up on two decades ago, when 156 of these episodes occurred in 2001/2002, while hospital data shows the lowest number of cases was in 2003/04, when only 138 such episodes were recorded.

The average age of patients with a foreign body left inside them was 57 last year. But the figures show a broad age range have been affected by these errors, from babies to patients over the age of 90.

This comes as the NHS is under intense and sustained pressure, caring for more patients than ever before.

Swabs and gauzes used during surgery or a procedure are one of the most common items left inside a patient, but in rare cases surgical tools such as scalpels and drill bits have been found.

There are strict procedures in hospitals to prevent such blunders, including checklists and the repeated counting of surgical tools.

The NHS Digital data does not make clear when a patient had the initial surgery or treatment that led to the incident, or whether it was performed under the NHS or by a private hospital. Each “episode” may not equate to a single patient as some people may have sought care more than once at a different hospital.

But leaving an object inside a patient after surgery is classed as a “never event” by the NHS – meaning the incident is so serious it should never have happened.

When a surgical implement is left inside a patient, it can require further surgery to remove it.

“Never events are called that because they are serious incidents that are entirely preventable because the hospital or clinic has systems in place to prevent them happening,” Rachel Power, chief executive of the Patients Association, told PA Media.

“When they occur, the serious physical and psychological effects they cause can stay with a patient for the rest of their lives, and that should never happen to anyone who seeks treatment from the NHS.”

An earlier analysis by PA, published in May 2022, found that some 407 “never events” were recorded in the NHS in England from April 2021 until March 2022. Vaginal swabs were left in patients 32 times and surgical swabs were left 21 times – while one woman even had her ovaries mistakenly removed.

Some of the other objects left inside patients included part of a pair of wire cutters, part of a scalpel blade, and the bolt from a pair of surgical forceps.

“Thanks to the hard work of NHS staff, incidents like these are rare,” an NHS spokesperson said. “However, when they do happen the NHS is committed to learning from them to improve care for future patients.

The spokesperson added: “Last year, the NHS published new guidance introducing a significant shift in the way the NHS responds to patient safety incidents, which will help organisations increase their focus on understanding how incidents happen and taking steps to make improvements.”