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January 17th, 2013

Surgical Errors – Foreign Objects, Wrong Body Parts and Wrong Procedures

Sometimes, bad things happen in a hospital setting. Certain things are inevitable. For instance, post-surgical infection is a generally accepted risk. However, certain medical errors are 100% preventable, such as foreign objects left in a patient or operating on the wrong body part.

Last month, medical researchers at Johns Hopkins revealed results of analysis of medical malpractice claims in the U.S. from 1990 to 2010. Click here to view the Johns Hopkins press release about the research study. The researchers estimate that certain “never” events, such as surgical error which results in foreign objects (sponge/towel) left inside a patient, occurred 80,000 times over the 20 year period, and that’s a conservative number because many never events are unreported. The researchers also analyzed other never events, like operating on the wrong body part or performing the wrong procedure. Such events are called “never” events because they should never happen.

According to the research study, out of the roughly 10,000 medical negligence claims which resulted from “never” events from 1990 to 2010, roughly 7% resulted in the patient’s death and in about 30% of the cases, there was permanent injury.

Surgical errors like the ones analyzed in this research study, while they might seem unfathomable, do occur. In fact the Johns Hopkins researchers estimate that over 4,000 never events occur in the U.S. each year. The estimate is low, considering that not every foreign object left behind after a surgery will be discovered. Some patients will never discover that surgical material, like a small sponge, was left behind.

Many hospitals have mechanisms in place to avoid never events. For instance, almost all hospitals use a basic pre/post surgery tool and material count. However, some complex surgeries require use of literally 100’s of materials, such as sponges, towels, pads, ties, etc. Even when a post surgery count appears to be accurate, simple human error can lead to a sponge or worse, an instrument, being left in the patient’s body.

In the majority of cases in which a never event occurs, the patient will survive. However, many will have to undergo invasive treatment like multiple surgeries. Prevention is crucial, but entirely up to the hospital, not the patient.

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