Horrific Surgical Errors

Preventable medical mistakes are the third leading cause of death in the U.S. after cancer and heart disease.

The Institute of Medicine reported in 1999 that 98,000 people die each year due to mistakes made in hospitals, and the number is on the rise.

A 2010 study from the Office of Inspector General for the Department of Health and Human Services reported that hospital mistakes result in more than 180,000 deaths. In 2016, a Johns Hopkins report shows that medical mistakes kill 250,000 people a year. 

Surgical Errors Occur Even at Reputable Hospitals 

Among medical mistakes, surgical error stories are often the most horrific. They occur more frequently than one might think, and often in the hands of reputable hospitals or experienced surgeons.

Research shows that surgical mistakes are often distributed evenly across the spectrum with regard to the physician’s age, with 36% taking place among surgeons ages 40 to 49, 30% between 50 and 50, and less than a quarter happening among surgeons 39 and below. Surgeons over 60 also contributed to 15% of surgical errors. 

Hospital Operated on the Wrong Side of the Brain 3 Times in a Row

In 2007, a leading hospital in Rhode Island operated on the wrong side of the patient’s brain for three times within a year. In the first incident, a third-year resident failed to mark the side of the brain that was to be operated on. And the nurse and doctor later confessed that they did not use a checklist to make sure that the brain surgery to avoid communication errors. In the second incident, an experienced doctor with over 20 years of experience allegedly operated on the wrong side of the brain of an 86 year old patient, who died a week later.

Finally, in the third incident, the chief resident neurosurgeon both confirmed which side of the brain was to be operated on, but ended up operating on the wrong side of the brain once again. All three incidents occurred three years after the Joint Commission mandated a three-step process, known as the universal protocol, to prevent surgical errors as a result of miscommunication.

Woman’s Rib Removed in Error 

In May 2015, a 60-year-old woman underwent surgery at a New Haven Hospital to have her eighth rib removed thanks to a painful precancerous lesion. However, while the radiologist marked the correct rib with dye to identify the surgical site, the operating surgeon still removed her seventh rib in error. The mix-up was not detected until the patient began to complain of continuing pain after the surgery, and the X-ray showed an intact eighth rib.

The patient underwent a second surgery the same day to remove the correct rib and subsequently sued the doctor for damages from the mistake and subsequent efforts to cover up. 

Iowa Man Operated on for Prostate Cancer He Never Had 

In 2017, an Iowa pathologist mixed up tissue sample slides from two patients, and the result was an Iowa man received a debilitating surgery for prostate cancer that he never had. The pathologist said that the barcode scanner used to match a patient’s slides with his records accidentally scanned a barcode from another patient’s form.

The urologist took the wrong slides and assumed that the patient has prostate cancer and proceeded to remove the prostate. A third pathologist examined the prostate that was removed after the surgery and found no evidence of cancer. The patient was compensated 12.25 million in damages for incontinence. 

How to Reduce Surgical Error Statistics? 

Surgical errors are often the result of carelessness, insufficient preoperative planning, poor communication, substance abuse, or improper work process.

As a result of this horrific wrong-site, wrong-side, or wrong-patient surgeries, hospitals have implemented routine time-out procedures before each surgery.

During these time outs, the staff and doctors work together to walk through the surgery: confirming the patient’s identity, the site of the surgery, the equipment needed, the goal of the procedure, doctors and nurses present and anticipated events.


Johns Hopkins Medicice

American Medical News

CBS News

Becker’s Hospital Review

Des Moines Register

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