Why and How Surgical Errors Occur


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When we hear about mistakes happening or things going wrong during surgery, we typically think they will always happen to someone else. It is often too difficult for us to ever imagine that these types of errors could actually be made on the people that we know and love. Unfortunately, preventable errors are a harsh reality of the medical world, and they happen all too frequently when individuals undergo various surgical procedures.

Dr. Martin Makary is a surgeon at Johns Hopkins Hospital and author of the book “Unaccountable: What Hospitals Won't Tell You and How Transparency Can Revolutionize Health Care.” In an essay that he wrote for The Wall Street Journal in 2012, he made a very poignant statement about surgical errors in this country.

“As doctors, we swear to do no harm. But on the job we soon absorb another unspoken rule: to overlook the mistakes of our colleagues. The problem is vast. U.S. surgeons operate on the wrong body part as often as 40 times a week. Roughly a quarter of all hospitalized patients will be harmed by a medical error of some kind. If medical errors were a disease, they would be the sixth leading cause of death in America—just behind accidents and ahead of Alzheimer's.”

All types of surgery come with some degree of risk. Whether it is a routine procedure like a tonsillectomy or something much more complex like a heart transplant, the unfortunate truth is that there is always the chance that something could go wrong. The numbers show that there is also a great possibility of the surgeon making a negligent or preventable mistake.

According to research conducted by Johns Hopkins Medicine, over 4,000 surgical "never events" occur each year in the United States. These "never events" are defined as medical errors that are entirely preventable and should never happen on the operating table. To get an even better idea of what this study considered, let’s take a look at some of the most common surgical errors that patients experience.

Wrong Patient is Operated On

While this mistake is less common than other surgical errors, there are still instances where the wrong patient is operated on. For example, imagine your 81-year-old mother or grandmother undergoing brain surgery that was intended for someone else. Sadly, this really happened. This means that the wrong patients receive unnecessary procedures that could potentially be devastating. Additionally, the true patients are not getting the proper treatment that they need.

Wrong Procedure is Performed

According to researchers at Johns Hopkins, the wrong procedures on patients are performed around 20 times each week. Not only are these patients receiving the incorrect procedures, but these erroneous surgeries could also result in healthy body parts being damaged.

Wrong Body Site is Operated On

All too often, surgeons operate on the wrong side of a patient’s body. These types of errors can include the right leg being amputated instead of the left leg, a healthy kidney removed and the diseased one left in the patient or the wrong side of the brain being operated on. Researchers at Johns Hopkins found that these types of surgical errors occur approximately 20 times each week.

Foreign Objects Left in the Patient

The numbers on how often foreign objects are left inside patients by surgeons are quite astonishing. The study from Johns Hopkins indicates that this happens an estimated 39 times each week. This includes sponges, towels, gauze, clamps and scalpels being accidentally left in individuals.

In a day and age where we have so many technological advances and organizational procedures in place, how do these types of surgical errors still happen? Especially if someone that you know has suffered from a mistake similar to these, it is important to understand what can lead to these devastating and sometimes debilitating mistakes.

Lack of Communication – Hospitals are busy places, and patients will typically encounter quite a few medical personnel during their stay. Amidst the staff changes that occur and the typical hustle and bustle that can be witnessed in hospitals throughout the country, it is quite easy for miscommunication to occur. This makes it more likely for patients with the same name to get mixed up or the surgeon to indicate the wrong area for surgery.

Unprepared Surgeon – Patients put their trust in the capability of their surgeons. Unfortunately, not all doctors do their due diligence at preparing for a procedure. If the surgeon has not thoroughly reviewed all of the medical notes and is not ready to address potential complications that could occur during the procedure, it is much easier for things to go wrong. Additionally, some surgeons are simply incompetent and lack the skills to successfully perform the surgery.

Fatigue, Drugs or Alcohol – These three factors can significantly impair a surgeon’s judgment and skills. It is sometimes difficult for doctors to get the rest they need when they are working long shifts, but fatigue can lead to careless errors. While you may never imagine a doctor trying to operate while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, it unfortunately happens from time to time.

Neglect – When surgeons fail to follow necessary protocols, they are simply exhibiting neglect. By not verifying that the correct surgery site is marked, making sure that all of the equipment is sterilized or accounting for all instruments once the procedure is completed, significant mistakes are possible.

An important detail to note is that not all negative surgical outcomes are the result of an error. Circumstances in an operating room can change in an instant, and surgeons do not always have the answers. In order to take any type of legal action against a surgeon, you must be able to prove that the outcome was avoidable.

If you believe that someone in your life has been the victim of a preventable surgical error, it is important to come forward. Not only should you seek justice for the victim, but it is also imperative to make an effort at preventing this from happening to other individuals as well. If you think your loved one suffered at the hands of a negligent doctor, it is in the best interest of everyone to seek legal assistance right away. Get justice, and help make sure no one else faces similar results from the same health care provider.

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