Thousands of Surgical Errors Made Every Year

New research indicates that surgeons make thousands of errors yearly in the United States, a shocking finding based on a study of thousands of surgeries over ten years.

The so-called “never events,” said The Wall Street Journal, are those mistakes that should not occur in medicine and include serious blunders such as surgery on the wrong patient and leaving sponges inside patients’ bodies. Research suggests these types of serious medical errors occur with distressing regularity, said the Journal.

In fact, noted researchers from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, writing in the journal Surgery, these mistakes occur more than 4,000 times every year. The study utilized data from the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal repository of medical-malpractice judgments and out-of-court settlements. The team looked at cases in which an object was left inside of a patient, surgeries were conducted on the wrong side of a patient’s body, wrong procedures were conducted on patients, and surgeries were conducted on wrong patients, said the Journal.

According to the researchers, of 9,744 cases identified between 1990-2010, over six percent of the patients died, nearly 40 percent suffered from permanent injury, and more than 59 percent suffered temporary injury. Just 12 percent of all adverse surgical events ended with an indemnity payment.

Lead study author, Martin Makary, associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins, said his team’s estimates these figures are most probably lower than what actually occurs. Prior studies indicate that many patients do not file claims and not all surgical items left behind in patients’ bodies are discovered. Such discovery typically only occurs if a patient suffers from post-surgical complications and physicians look into the cause of that complication. At least one in three or four surgical sponges may never be discovered in patents’ bodies, said Makary.

Surgical mistakes are “totally preventable,” Dr. Makary told the Journal.

We’ve long written about the issue of botched surgeries. In prior studies, as in this study, researchers noted that mistakes occur more often than realized and these types of errors are fully preventable. And, although we’ve been writing about this dangerous trend for years, the trend continues.

The Journal noted that, legally, hospitals must report events that end in either a settlement or in a judgment that is posted to the database. Dr. Makary pointed out that hospitals can choose against naming a doctor on settlements, which would mean the issue would not be reported to the practitioner database, said the Journal.

Harvard University patient-safety expert Lucian Leape said the study is limited because it does not count events but, rather takes information from malpractice claims and database reports. Dr. Leape suggested that more stringent financial penalties might help improve safety, explaining that the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services penalize hospitals for preventable events. Should a hospital be fined $100,000 for a wrong-site surgery, twice that for a repeat incident, “it would make the news, and they would get serious about it,” Dr. Leape told the Journal.

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