The lowly surgical sponge is one of the basic commodities all hospital operating rooms need, and which most just buy in bulk from the cheapest suppliers they can find.
But to RF Surgical Systems, a Bellevue, WA-based company with an engineering center in San Diego, there’s a lot more going on in surgical sponges. The company is seeking to build a whole new market with radio-frequency tags embedded surgical sponges that will make it so doctors and nurses no longer have to scramble around counting dozens of sponges after the end of an operation, hoping they didn’t leave any material behind inside the patient who just got sewn up.
More than 20 million people undergo surgery each year in the U.S., according to one 2005 estimate from Stanford University. It’s hard to know how many surgical sponges are consumed every year in the U.S., but depending on blood loss in emergency situations, it’s not uncommon for a surgeon to go through 20 to 60 of them, according to RF co-founder Jeffrey Port, a heart/lung surgeon at New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center. Data is a bit sketchy on how many sponges actually get left behind by accident, but it happens an estimated 3,000 times year, according to the federal Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality.
More often, nurses get placed under lots of stress, and a lot of precious time gets wasted when a post-op count goes wrong. When a sponge does get left behind, the lawsuits, of course, will follow. (I found one of these painful stories in a recent Miami Herald piece.) RF Surgical’s bet is that hospitals will pay a little bit more for sponges with radio-frequency tags in them. Any tags left behind would trigger a wand waved over the patient to emit a sound, so a quiet sweep would provide peace of mind for the surgical team.
The market for this invention? Possibly $500 million to $1 billion a year in the U.S., Port says.
“We’re talking about really solving this problem,” Port says. “I think we will see not a single retained foreign body left behind after surgery in three years.” It won’t be easy, he adds: “It makes a lot of sense, but we have to show it works. No one will mandate it.”
The idea of using radio-frequency tags has been around for a long time as you can see from this list of patent references, and even though the surgical sponge problem is so notorious, no one has built a big business on the concept yet. Port, who co-founded RF in 2005, was inspired to do something about the problem late in his surgical residency at Bellevue Hospital Center in New York, the oldest public hospital in the U.S. He was fascinated by how so much gauze went into patients, and how nurses had to track it all manually, all in the chaos of an ER. When the count didn’t add up, a patient might lay in the operating room for 45 minutes on a ventilator waiting for an X-ray machine to look for the missing gauze inside. The scans were sometimes read by someone late at night, who didn’t always … Next Page »