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5 Technologies to Make Surgery Safer

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, August 31, 2010

Low-tech solutions such as checklists and calling a time-out before surgery can dramatically improve safety in the operating room, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), which recently released guidelines to deter surgical errors. But there are plenty of technologies that can help make the OR a safer place—from systems that keep track of sponges and to robots that may someday be able to deliver anesthesia remotely to systems that help counteract alert fatigue.

The ACOG guidance supports the Joint Commission's "three-part universal protocol" as a useful tool for healthcare teams to prevent surgical errors. The first protocol calls for the healthcare team to ensure that each patient's relevant documents and all of the surgical equipment are available, correctly identified, and reviewed before surgery."Using standard checklists, systems, and routines may sound to some like cook-book medicine, but they have been proven to greatly reduce surgery errors," said Richard Waldman, MD, ACOG's president.

The steps sound simple—and they are. And yet surgical errors still occur. The steps endorsed by ACOG rely heavily on humans to perform them, after all. And human behavior, human actions, and human memory are far from perfect.

Here are five surgical pitfalls and the technology that can help humans in the OR avoid them.

1. Retained surgical instruments
The FDA recently approved another surgical tool tracking system that helps keep all manner of surgical implements, including sponges, where they belong—namely, outside of the patient's body. There are a number of these systems, which keep track of every item in the room through RFID chips and alert OR staff when one is not in its proper place. Some systems have a wand that, when waved over the patient's body, detect any items left behind. These systems help cut down on complex and time-consuming counting procedures that are prone to human error.  

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