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Under the Knife...Common Reasons for Surgical Errors


Surgical errors are surprisingly common, and there are many reasons why they occur. Mistakes in the operating room can lead to long-term injury and even death.

How Common is Surgical Error?

A surgical error may occur at the hands of an experienced surgeon, a member of the nursing staff or an anesthesiologist. Around 51.4 million Americans go under the knife in outpatient procedures alone each year, according to the CDC. Johns Hopkins University suggests that more than 250,000 deaths each year are caused by medical errors, making them the third leading cause of death in the United States, above respiratory disease, accident and strokes.

There is risk involved with any type of surgery or medical procedure and simply because a doctor makes a mistake or a patient is unhappy with the results of the surgery does not mean that medical malpractice occurred. When a medical professional is negligent, which leads to the harm of a patient, however, this may be considered malpractice. When injury or death results from a medical procedure, rather than the illness or injury that is being treated, malpractice is often to blame.

The consequences of surgical errors range from temporary injury or illness, which is the most common case, to permanent injury and death. Nearly 7% of surgical errors each year are fatal and over 30% lead to long-term injury.

Surgical errors do happen during complex surgeries, but most occur during procedures that are considered to be minor, or routine. Cataract and other eye surgery, gastric bypass surgery, sinus surgery and obstetric procedures are all common surgeries with high rates of error.

Types of Surgical Errors

A surgical error may occur in the operating room itself, or in an outpatient facility or recovery area. Common types of preventable surgical injuries include:

  • Puncturing of internal organs
  • Infection
  • Performing surgery on the wrong side or body part
  • Performing surgery on the wrong patient
  • Unnecessary surgery
  • Leaving behind a foreign object like a sponge, towel or surgical instrument inside of a person's body
  • Incorrect incisions
  • Nerve damage
  • Anesthesiology errors
  • Negligent post-operative care

While some patients may suffer from complications such as heart failure or stroke, they must be informed of these risks before surgery is performed. Surgical errors that are considered malpractice go beyond the known risks.

Surgical errors are not always immediately apparent. In some cases, symptoms arise after the fact and surgery is later deemed the cause. What seems like a small error can lead to costly follow-up procedures, ongoing illness, lost wages and pain and suffering. A patient's health may never return to where it once was, and may even deteriorate as a result of a procedure.

What Causes Surgical Errors?

Medical professionals generally follow specific protocols prior to, during and following surgical procedures. Failure to follow these protocols can lead to patient injury. Some of the reasons that surgical errors occur are:

  • Failure to adequately plan- A complete medical history, including any prior injuries during surgery, diseases, reactions to medications and allergies must all be compiled and reviewed before a patient is surgically treated. If this is not done, the patient may not be informed of all of the risks.
  • Communication Issues- If there is an error in a patient's file, information is misread, or the wrong site is marked for surgery, injury may result. Especially during complicated surgeries, when multiple medical professionals are involved in the procedure, failure to communicate can lead to errors. Though all equipment must be accounted for and surgical sites checked and double checked, confusion can occur when all members of a surgical team are not on the same page.
  • Fatigue or Substance Abuse- When a surgeon or other medical professional works long hours and is constantly exposed to stressful working conditions, excess drowsiness or the use of drugs to stay awake could impact alertness. Just as fatigue or driving under the influence leads to driving accidents, lack of focus and judgment can cause surgical errors.
  • Incompetence- The medical team that performs a surgery is required to possess a certain level of training and professional certification. Surgeons and anesthesiologists are required to undergo years of study and training before performing procedures. This does not mean, however, that all surgeons and surgical staff have the skills and experience necessary to perform a specific type of surgery. When a practiced surgeon carries out a surgery that is beyond the scope of their knowledge or training, serious consequences may arise.

Because the consequences of surgical error can be expensive and life-altering, financial compensation may be available to injured patients. Prompt consultation with an attorney may expedite this process. Victims of surgical error may consult a personal injury lawyer, who can provide information on medical malpractice laws in Tennessee.

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