Objective(s): This study aimed to critically examine the circumstances contributing to, and the human costs arising from, the retention of surgical items through the lens of Australian case law.

Design, setting and participants: We reviewed Australian cases from 1981 to 2018 to establish a pattern of antecedents and identify long-term patient impacts (human costs) of retained surgical items. We used a modified fourstep process to conduct a systematic review of legal doctrine, combined with a narrative synthesis approach to bring the information together for understanding. We searched LexisNexis, AustLII, Coroner Court websites, Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency Tribunal Decisions and Panel Hearings, Civil and Administrative Tribunal summaries, and other online sources for publicly available civil cases, medical disciplinary cases, coronial cases and criminal cases across all Australian jurisdictions.

Results: Ten cases met the inclusion criteria, including one coronial case, three civil appeal cases and six civil first instance cases. Time from item retention to discovery ranged from 12 days to 20 years, with surgical sponges the most frequently retained item. Five case reports indicated possible deviations from standard protocols regarding counting procedures and record-keeping. In the four cases that reported on count status, the count was deemed correct at the end of surgery. Case reports also showed the human costs of retained surgical items, that is, the long-term impacts on patients associated with a retained surgical item. In eight of the nine civil cases, ongoing pain was the most frequently reported physical symptom; in three cases, patients suffered psychosocial symptoms requiring treatment.

Conclusion: While there was little uniformity in the items retained or how items came to be retained, we identified significant time delays between item retention and item discovery, coupled with long-lasting physical and psychosocial harms suffered by patients living with a retained surgical item. Current prevention strategies, including national standards-based professional practices, are not always effective in preventing retained surgical items. An internationally standardised taxonomy and reporting criteria, more consistent reporting, and open access to event and risk data could inform a more accurate global estimate of risk and incidence of this hospital-acquired complication.

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Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.