And in addition to the negative publicity, hospitals are ordered to pay a fine of up to $100,000 for each incident.
The legislation that established these fines—$9.25 million has been assessed to date—directs that they go to a special fund for projects that improve quality and patient safety. But here we see a bureaucratic and budgetary failure.
Often, reporters ask: Why do surgeons keep forgetting to remove these items? And, how does the state put these fines to good use?
There's usually a nervous pause, because after four years, only a small amount has actually been allocated. After years of bickering, two projects are only just getting started.
Lisa McGiffert, director of the Safe Patient Project for Consumers Union, says California should spend the money. "California is a leader in having this kind of a law that requires fines for putting patients in immediate jeopardy, " she says. "This is money that should be used to prevent future deaths and injuries to patients."
As I wrote in a column two and a half years ago, Kathleen Billingsley, then deputy director for the state Department of Public Health, told me the state was going to spend $800,000 on a research project that would get to the bottom of the retained surgical items cause, and find solutions. Catheters, a denture, drill bits, retractors, electrodes, sponges, screws, and tubing, she said, accounted for 18.6% of all adverse event reports at that time.