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RFID Chips Prevent Sponges From Being Left Behind During Surgery

Radiofrequency Identification (RFID) chips are not just in your Mach3 razor packages, they're showing promise in surgery as well. In the July Archives of Surgery, Stanford researchers found that they could detect sponges left behind with an RFID wand reader with 100% accuracy. [1] Sponges and other foreign bodies are sometimes inadvertantly left behind and the surgical site closed. This can happen even though there's a nurse counting so that each sponge used during surgery is accounted for at the end, before they wrap up. Some time later, these left-behind foreign bodies are perfect places for infections to start since bacteria can grow on them, and the body can't adequately attack these infections.

The researchers had surgeons play hide-and-seek, with an initial surgeon hiding the RFID tagged sponge, and a second surgeon who had not been watching, find the hidden sponges. Every sponge was able to be found, and at no time did the wand reader indicate that a sponge was there when it wasn't.

This is a promising use of technology that originally was designed to track manufactured products through the supply chain. I'm looking forward to having this reassurance in surgery.

One pause of concern is this note from JAMA (Journal of American Medical Association):
"Editor's Note: Dean and Sharon Morris own several patents and have patents pending related to RFID-tagged sponges. Dean Morris is a director and Sharon Morris is a nursing consultant for ClearCount Medical Solutions Inc. This study was supported in part by a grant from the Small Business Innovation Research Program and the National Institutes of Health."


1. Macari; Morris
Initial Clinical Evaluation of a Handheld Device for Detecting Retained Surgical Gauze Sponges Using Radiofrequency Identification Technology
Arch Surg. 2006;141:659-662.

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About the Author


Dr. Schwimmer's blog explores the intersection of medicine, new technologies, and the Internet.