Surgical Errors


Surgical Errors

Surgeons and other involved medical personnel owe patients a duty of care. In the healthcare setting, this duty of care refers to the medically accepted standard of care. When surgeons and other healthcare professionals fail to live up to their duty, they can cause serious injuries to patients. If a harmful surgical error was made out of negligence, it may be considered medical malpractice.

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What is Medical Malpractice?

Medical malpractice is an area of law that deals with substandard medical treatment resulting in harm to a patient. Malpractice refers to professional negligence in the healthcare setting.

A medical malpractice claim gives hurt patients a way of seeking recourse for their injuries. Under personal injury law, careless healthcare providers can be held liable in civil court.

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Civil actions are an important part of the judicial system and necessary for professional accountability.

What Are Surgical Errors?

A surgical error is a preventable and unintentional mistake during the operation. It is essential to know that injuries from known risks are not the same as surgical errors. For an event to be defined as a surgical error, the mistake must be preventable and not an identified possible outcome.

Surgical errors are events that are avoidable through proper training, following safety protocols, or in the execution of the operation. Surgeons and other operating room staff must go through years of rigorous training. In addition, numerous safety protocols involve pre-op and post-op considerations. Adequate follow-ups are a large part of the safety protocol to ensure there were no complications from the surgery.

Operating procedures vary considerably. For example, removing a brain tumor involves very different skills than removing an appendix. Every mistake on the operating table must be held against the set standard of skill and potential risks of similar procedures.

Examples of Surgical Errors in Oklahoma

Every surgery involves potential dangers. Before an operation, a patient is made aware of possible side effects and other known risks. Once the surgeon has explained the procedure fully, patients sign an “informed consent” form. If the patient suffers harm outside of the risks listed in the form, it may be a sign of malpractice.

Examples of medical malpractice surgical errors are as follows:

  • Leaving a foreign object such as a towel, sponge, or tool inside the body
  • Operating on the wrong body part or removing the wrong body part or organ
  • Executing the wrong type of surgery
  • Not giving enough anesthesia or the wrong kind of anesthesia
  • Receiving the wrong blood type during a transfusion
  • Operating on the wrong patient
  • Surgical site infections
  • Failing to react to an emergency or complication during the procedure
  • Failing to fully assess a patient’s health prior to surgery

Despite extensive training, medical professionals can make negligent critical errors.

What Are the Most Common Reasons Surgical Errors Occur?

Even similar surgeries may have vast differences. Surgeons and other medical personnel are trained to handle the various nuances of each operation. However, acts of negligence can lead to detrimental surgical errors, including:

  • Fatigue: Medical professionals tend to work very long shifts. In some cases, a single shift for a surgeon can last from 12 to 28 hours.
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    In the event of an emergency, shifts may run much longer. Fatigue greatly increases the probability of a surgeon making a careless mistake.

  • Incompetence: In the medical world, surgeons typically have very specific skills to perform certain operations. A neurosurgeon may not have the adequate skills to perform an open-heart operation. If a surgeon lacks the skills to perform an operation, they can cause permanent injuries or death.
  • Lack of planning: All medical personnel must be adequately prepared prior to surgery. Surgeons especially must ensure they are current on potential risks or complications for the operation and that they are up-to-date on how the surgery is performed. The medical world moves fast. Medical professionals are required to stay informed on changes in their field and maintain continuing education while licensed.
    Other healthcare personnel involved in the surgery, including nurses and anesthesiologists, must prepare for the operation. OR nurses, i.e., operating room nurses, must ensure all necessary equipment is available and ready and that all instruments are sterilized and ready for the surgeon.
  • Following the procedure: Every operation has a procedure to follow. In addition, there are various safety processes and protocols aimed at preventing deadly mistakes.
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    Harmful errors occur when a surgeon skips a critical step before, during, or after an operation.

  • Lack of communication: Continuous and effective communication is imperative during an operation. The failure to communicate the need for a blood transfusion or that a patient has woken during surgery can lead to horrific and deadly consequences.
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    Communication is also important before and after surgery. A patient must be made aware of all possible risks prior to an operation. A post-op patient must also be informed on how to take care of their surgical wounds and any potential symptoms to beware of and seek medical attention. For example, a patient may need to be aware of the symptoms of infection or internal bleeding so they can seek immediate care.

  • Operating under the influence: While fatigue can interfere with a surgeon or medical professional’s ability to think and make decisions, drug and alcohol impairment is far worse.

    According to recent studies, doctors and nurses account for some of the highest rates of substance abuse in the American workforce:

  • 20% of nurses struggle with addiction
  • 71% of physicians who are in treatment for addiction will experience a relapse
  • Surgeons represent between 13% to 25% of addicts

Surgical errors are far more common than the general population realizes.

How Common Are Surgical Errors?

As more and more Americans undergo surgical procedures, the number of surgical errors continues to rise. In any case, these surgical errors are horrific tragedies and preventable.

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More than 10% of Americans are killed by medical errors every year, making it the third leading cause of death in the nation.

According to recent studies:

  • Over 4,000 preventable surgical errors occur each year
  • 59% of mistakes in the operating room result in temporary injury
  • 33% of patients sustain permanent injuries
  • 6.6% suffer fatal surgical errors

Over the last 20 years, medical malpractice claims have yielded more than $1.3 billion for injured patients. Unfortunately, most surgeons who commit negligent mistakes are not new. Surgical errors happen most often when a surgeon is between the ages of 40 and 49, the peak of a medical professional’s career.

In addition, two-thirds of surgeons involved in operational mistakes had been the subject of past medical malpractice reports.

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Of all surgeons, 12.4% of negligent doctors were named in more than one preventable surgical error.

What Injuries Are Associated with Surgical Errors?

Patients are entirely at the mercy of medical staff during surgery. A patient is unconscious in the operating room, dependent on the anesthesiologist to keep them safely sedated and with enough oxygen throughout the procedure. The surgeon and other medical personnel are responsible for operating under the accepted standard of care owed to all patients. Even a small act of negligence can have deadly consequences.

The most common injuries associated with surgical errors consist of the following:

  • Infection
  • Internal bleeding
  • Internal organ damage
  • Nerve damage
  • Spinal cord damage
  • Loss of limb
  • Muscle damage
  • Perforated bowel
  • Brain damage
  • Sepsis

Mistakes during surgery can be life-altering. The slip of a scalpel can cause permanent spinal cord and nerve damage.

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In severe cases, a patient may wake from an operation with paraplegia.

Surgical errors can lead to a patient’s death during the operation or soon after. A patient can bleed out during the procedure if an artery or organ is mistakenly nicked. If a surgeon or operating staff is not careful about sterilizing instruments and washing hands, patients can suffer from deadly post-op infections.

Can Surgical Errors be Prevented?

Over the decades, research and advances in technology have led to an array of safety procedures to prevent surgical mistakes. The Joint Commission is a non-profit group dedicated to patient safety. The organization accredits and certifies various healthcare facilities and programs that comply with the highest national standards for safety and quality of care.

According to The Joint Commission Patient Safety Goals, current protocols involve:

  • Speaking with patients before surgery, taking special care to evaluate potential dangers and risks
  • Confirm the identity of the patient using two methods, similar to a two-step verification system favored by online enterprises
  • Ensure all diagnostic and laboratory testing matches the correct patient
  • Include steps to prevent infection, including post-op antibiotics and catheter changes
  • Take a mini-break before surgery to ensure everything is in order
  • Verify that the correct body part is marked
  • Double-check that the chart and type of surgery match for the patient
  • Make certain that all necessary tools and equipment are present and sterilized
  • Double-check device alarms and alarms on medical machines are working
  • Verify medications by double-checking labels, even those in a syringe
  • Count sponges and other tools and equipment both before and after surgery
  • Ensure the patient’s next provider receives accurate information regarding medications
  • Be sure to take extra time with patients who have been prescribed blood thinners or immunity compromising treatments (e.g., chemotherapy)

Surgical errors can also be prevented by increased accountability. Currently, there is a culture of non-reporting of surgical errors. Studies from The Joint Commission indicate the punishment may reduce reporting errors due to disciplinary acts. However, punishment should steer away from shaming medical professionals.

At Graves McLain, our surgical errors lawyers can assist with filing a medical malpractice claim against a negligent medical professional. To schedule a free consultation, please contact the office at (918) 359-6600.

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