Surgeons Make Thousands of Errors

The above is the headline of a December 19, 2012 article in the Wall Street Journal. The WSJ article and several others on the same subject were based upon a study published on December 8, 2012 in the journal Surgery that documents the high number of surgical errors each year.

The study shows that events known as “never events” occur as much as four thousand times per year. According to the authors, “never events” are those medical events that should never occur. Medical News Today, in an article on December 22, 2012, reported that the study notes, “They estimate that at least 39 times a week a surgeon leaves foreign objects inside their patients, which includes stuff like towels or sponges. In addition surgeons performing the wrong surgery or operating on the wrong body part occurs around 20 times a week.”

Marty Makary, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and one of the study authors said, “There are mistakes in health care that are not preventable. Infection rates will likely never get down to zero even if everyone does everything right, for example. But the events we’ve estimated are totally preventable. This study highlights that we are nowhere near where we should be and there’s a lot of work to be done.”

In their own words, the authors of the study reported in their results that, “We identified a total of 9,744 paid malpractice settlement and judgments for surgical never events occurring between 1990 and 2010. Malpractice payments for surgical never events totaled $1.3 billion. Mortality occurred in 6.6% of patients, permanent injury in 32.9%, and temporary injury in 59.2%. Based on literature rates of surgical adverse events resulting in paid malpractice claims, we estimated that 4,082 surgical never event claims occur each year in the United States.”

The authors offered some advice by saying, “Despite our advances in the delivery of health care, surgical never events continue to occur, with serious implications for patients, providers, and health care costs. Strategies used in other complex systems such as aviation may help provide a blueprint to examine both the individual and the institutional factors that contribute to these preventable and costly events.”

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