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Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chips, which are normally used to prevent people from stealing merchandise, are being used in many new ways. Recently, this technology has been used to make sure surgical materials are not left inside of patients after surgery.

The RF-Detect system helps health-care professionals keep tabs on all the surgical sponges employed during operations by using RFID tags embedded within them. A wand-like device is then waved over the surgery site to detect the RFID tags.

This new technology is extremely valuable; foreign objects being left inside patients’ chests after surgery is actually quite common. According to the 2003 New England Journal of Medicine study, an estimated 1 out of every 1,000-1,500 inter-abdominal surgeries have this kind of mistake. Leaving surgical materials, such as surgical sponges, in patients after surgery can cause serious infections and can even lead to death. Sponges are the most commonly left behind material, probably because they are used often and can blend in once saturated.

Also, as of fall 2008, healthcare providers will no longer receive payment from Medicare for the removal of for of foreign objects mistakenly left behind in patients. These providers have been trying to find a way to stop these mistakes, and RFID is a cost-effective way to decrease the problem. The RF-Detect system only adds $50 to $60 to thoracic procedures, which is much less expensive then removal surgeries and infection treatments.

Currently more than 50 hospitals have committed to or plan to trial the system over the coming two months, the Tribune article says. A nationwide rollout of RF-Detect is planned for this spring.

For more information on this subject, please refer to our section on Medical Malpractice.

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