State health regulators have fined 14 California hospitals about $850,000 for serious medical mistakes that they say put patient lives in jeopardy, including leaving surgical tools inside patients.
The California Department of Public Health announced the medical error fines on December 8, handing out penalties of $25,000 to $100,000 for incidents where noncompliance with health care standards put patients in immediate jeopardy.
Seven of the 14 hospitals were fined for leaving surgical tools in patients’ bodies. The next most common fine was for hospitals that failed to put into place procedures for the proper administration of medicine.
The largest fines of $100,000 went to repeat offenders, including Mission Hospital Regional Medical Center in Mission Viejo, which has received four administrative penalties; and Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, which has received six administrative penalties.
Other hospitals fined include Fresno Surgical Hospital, Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital in Valencia, Kaiser Foundation Hospital in South San Francisco, LAC+USC Medical Center in Los Angeles, Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital at Stanford in Palo Alto, San Francisco General Hospital, Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, St, Jude Medical Center in Fullerton, Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo, Torrance Memorial Medical Center, UCSF Medical Center in San Francisco and Ventura County Medical Center.
Surgical sponges were the medical tools most commonly left in patients at the fined hospitals, but other objects left behind included a breakaway metal tab, a pin and a surgical towel.
Leaving a surgical tool behind after a medical procedure is rare, but can pose serious and potentially fatal consequences. Precautionary measures like surgical tool counts, tracking bar codes and radiographic screening after operations can greatly reduce risk. The most common surgical tools left behind in patients are sponges.
According to a 2003 report published in the New England Journal of Medicine, there were about 1,500 cases a year in which a sponge or surgical tool was left behind after surgery. Approximately 88% of the cases involved a final count that was incorrect.
In many cases, forgotten surgical sponges left after surgery are not discovered for a number or years, when patients begin suffering from unexplained symptoms. The difficulty in detecting the surgical mistake has led most states to allow exeptions to the statute of limitations for medical malpractice suits in cases where a foreign object is left behind during surgery.