Scalpel, Check…Sponge, Check…Living Patient, Check!

A new study -- both frightening and hopeful -- suggests that using common sense in the operating room can save lives.

Hospitals where surgical teams were armed with a checklist of tasks – like making sure the right person is on the operating table, marking the part of the body to be cut open and counting sponges before and after the operation – reduced the death rate by nearly half, according to a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

Hospitals that used the 19-step checklist also decreased the number of post-operative complications to 7 percent from 11 percent. The number of deaths within 30 days of surgery dropped to .8 percent from 1.5 percent, the study showed.

The safety checklist, developed by the World Health Organization, was tested in hospitals in eight cities around the world: Seattle; Toronto; London; New Delhi; Auckland, New Zealand; Amman, Jordan; Manila, Philippines; and Ifakara, Tanzania. The drop in the death and complication rates were more pronounced in the hospitals in developing countries, the study found.

Prior to the 2007-2008 study, only two of the participating hospitals required surgical teams to orally confirm a patient’s identity before operating as a matter of course. 

The U.S. instituted a shorter version of the checklist about five years ago. Researchers estimate that using the 19-step checklist would save $15 billion a year in the U.S. alone – not to mention many lives and much pain.

The hope is that the study will prod hospitals around the world to adopt the checklist. The frightening part is that some may not – and that many hospitals, unknown to patients and their families, have been operating for years without taking simple safety steps.

The lesson: Don't take anything for granted and never be afraid to ask your doctors seemingly silly questions. The life you save may be your own.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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