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Surgical Errors

Jul 27, 2023

Surgical errors are preventable yet unintentional injuries that occur any time between a surgical patient’s admission into the hospital and their discharge from the facility. These medical mistakes happen when a patient’s provider neglects to follow “appropriate, procedure-specific training protocols,” as a National Institutes of Health paper points out.

These surgical mistakes do not include known risks common to the surgical procedure, provided the patient’s care team has followed proper protocol. In most cases, these errors occur due to burnout, lack of training, unnecessary procedures, simple miscommunication, or a combination of these and other issues.

Surgical errors can occur from omission, where a provider fails to perform a critical action, or commission, in which the provider takes the wrong action. Much as hospitals and standalone surgical facilities want to minimize the incidence of medical mistakes, errors remain a significant cause of patient deaths — the third-leading cause of death in the US, according to a report in the British Medical Journal.

How Often Do Surgical Errors Occur?

As a recently updated StatPearls article points out, nearly 400,000 hospital patients suffer “some type of preventable harm” every year. The errors that cause this harm exact a heavy toll, causing 100,000 deaths and incurring $20 billion in costs yearly.

Most of the malpractice claims that arise from hospital mistakes are due to surgical errors, the article concluded. Unfortunately, hospitals’ efforts to cut costs by understaffing their nursing workforce result in increased mortality — a common scenario today.

In Connecticut, the numbers reflect the nation’s dire situation. The number of adverse events that took place in the state’s hospitals jumped 7 percent during 2018, a December 2019 Connecticut Post article reveals.

The number of “adverse events” occurring at Connecticut hospitals rose 7 percent in 2018, compared with the previous year, with a growing number of patients suffering serious injury or death associated with falls, according to a new state report.

It gets even worse, as the report points out. The number of deaths or severe injuries from falls in the state’s hospitals increased by 26 percent.

Cases in which doctors performed the wrong surgical procedure, resulting in serious injury or death, doubled. Incidents in which surgeons failed to remove a foreign object from inside a patient’s body occurred 65 percent more.

Even routine screenings are not exempt from producing their share of life-changing surgical errors. According to a Connecticut Public Radio article, almost half of the perforations that caused severe injury or death during 2013 occurred during endoscopies, colonoscopies, or other relatively minor procedures.

Types of Surgical Mistakes

Although all surgery entails some risk, patients might have grounds for a personal injury lawsuit if they or a loved one suffered a severe injury — or even died — from preventable medical errors. If your surgical team or the hospital staff committed any of the following surgical mistakes, a court might find them guilty of malpractice, should the facts corroborate your claims:

Leaving foreign objects inside a patient’s body

Statistics show that anywhere from 4,500 to 6,000 patients suffer injuries when their surgical team fails to check for foreign objects, such as sponges, needles, towels, or surgical instruments, before closing the surgical incision. Needles and sponges are the most common items, constituting over two-thirds of these injuries. Adhesions, infections, and perforations often result from these surgical mistakes.

Failing to prevent, monitor for, or treat surgical complications

While you are in the care of a medical institution, they are responsible for protecting you from surgical complications, such as strokes, hemorrhaging, or infections, before, during, or after surgery. However, a 2021 CDC report revealed that one out of every 31 hospital patients will contract a hospital-acquired infection, many of them causing severe illness or death. Other complications, too, happen all too often, even in developed countries such as the US. Research shows that 14.4% of the surgical patients in one study “experienced adverse events,” with more than a third suffering preventable injuries.

Falls that occur at the hospital before, during, or after a surgical procedure

Patients with conditions that require surgery are often not in the best health, so it stands to reason that fall prevention before surgery would be in the patient’s best interest. In fact, statistics show that preoperative falls are an excellent indicator of postoperative falls. Screening patients for a history of falling and ensuring safety during the preoperative period is critical for fall prevention after the surgery.

Surprisingly, falls during surgical procedures also present a hazard. Making sure that the patient and the operating table itself are secure is an essential step in preventing these “potentially catastrophic complication[s],” as an Anesthesia & Analgesia paper advises. Also, hospital staff should guard against postoperative falls, given most postoperative patients’ instability.

Errors in administering anesthesia or other medications

In a retrospective analysis of US hospitals over seven years, more than 17,116 anesthetic-related injuries occurred, with nearly a 1 percent mortality rate. A Harvard study revealed an even more alarming statistic — in one of every two surgical procedures, “some sort of mistake or adverse event occurred” due to “medication errors and adverse drug events” before, during, and after various surgical procedures. Of that number, almost a third of those mistakes resulted in patient harm. Eliminating labeling errors, double-checking dosages and documentation, and alertness to vital signs can go a long way toward reducing that number.

Performing a procedure on the wrong part of a patient’s body or even on the wrong patient

One would think that of all the preventable errors, this one would be the easiest to prevent. These surgical mistakes should be “never events — errors that should never occur,” as Patient Safety Network article points out.

Wrong-Site, Wrong-Procedure, and Wrong-Patient Surgical Errors

The last category deserves a deeper dive. Although these events are rare, occurring in only one out of 112,000 surgeries, as the previously cited Patient Safety Network piece indicates, they yield a devastating outcome in every case.

Wrong-Site Surgical Errors

Wrong-site surgical errors, in which a surgeon operates on the same organ on a different side of the body or performs a procedure at the wrong level of the body part in question, can permanently disfigure a previously healthy part of the body. In the worst-case scenario, it can cause permanent paralysis or death.

For example, if a patient has a cancerous tumor in their lower right leg, their doctor might refer them to a surgeon for an amputation of that leg below the knee. But if the surgeon performs the amputation on the left leg, the patient will not only lose that leg but will have to lose their lower right leg in a subsequent operation.

And, as the Patient Safety Network piece noted, performing surgery “on the wrong level of the spine” is a “surprisingly common issue for neurosurgeons.” With paralysis always a risk in spinal surgery, exposing the patient twice to the risks of a spinal procedure is inexcusable.

Wrong-Procedure Surgical Errors

Imagine the horror of going into the hospital for breast-reduction surgery and coming out from anesthesia, only to discover that you’ve had a double mastectomy. This sort of scenario should never happen — but with the fragmented nature of today’s healthcare system, it can.

In many cases, surgeons are not as familiar with their patients as the referring physicians. Mix-ups can also occur from paperwork errors or other forms of miscommunication. And, if the patient is unconscious or delirious before surgery, the surgeon cannot verbally confirm the type of procedure with the patient before anesthesia.

Wrong-Patient Surgical Errors

An American Health Information Management Association (AHIMA) report detailed several case studies of patients for whom misidentification resulted in disaster.

  • Preoperative cardiac clearance mix-up: One patient received a preoperative cardiac clearance meant for another patient. As a result, neither the surgical nor the postoperative care team took precautions for his cardiac issues. Without intensive care during the immediate recovery period, the patient died the next day.
  • The wrong patient’s DNR record: After a patient went into cardiac arrest, the hospital staff pulled the wrong patient’s record, one with a DNR order. The care team followed the DNR protocol for the other patient and failed to resuscitate the patient, who subsequently passed away.
  • Same first name, wrong lens implant: Not all lens implants for cataract surgery are alike, as a Duke Health article points out. In the AHIMA case study referenced above, two patients who shared the same first name awaited cataract surgery. The hospital staff wheeled the wrong patient into an operating room, where she received the lens implant for the similarly named other patient.

As the Patient Safety Network article cited earlier contends, clear communication would go a long way toward eliminating these errors. Combined with pre-procedure reviews, surgical safety checklists, and accurate documentation, improved communication across all channels should make these events even rarer.

How Do These Mistakes Happen?

Success in proving medical malpractice in Connecticut hinges on demonstrating that a healthcare provider or organization has caused serious illness or injury due to negligence. Healthcare providers have a duty of care to their patients. If a provider’s actions do not meet the proper standard of care and cause injury to their patients, they have demonstrated negligence.

Negligent acts can include the following scenarios:

  • Understaffing: Hospitals and other healthcare facilities must have adequate support staff on site. For example, if a hospital fails to hire enough nurses to care for patients before, during, and after surgery, those who do show up for work often suffer from burnout and overwork. In that case, the nurses might forget to check a patient’s status after surgery, resulting in injury or death.
  • Fatigued doctors: Even though regulations limit resident doctors to a maximum of 80 work hours per week, that’s still nearly double the time an average banker, lawyer, or account executive puts in per week. Combined with the stress involved in performing surgery and caring for patients postoperatively, this situation often engenders fatigue. If these physicians fail to get the rest they need, they cannot focus on the task at hand, leading to medical errors.
  • Operating under the influence: Statistics show that 6 to 14 percent of the nation’s physicians have substance abuse issues. When those issues carry over into the operating room or post-op recovery, the results can prove disastrous.
  • Inadequate training: When a surgeon doesn’t have the skills and experience to carry out a particular procedure, they should not perform it. Unfortunately, when egos get in the way, some surgeons do not have the sense to admit their incompetence and, therefore, expose themselves to charges of negligence should an adverse outcome occur.
  • Poor communication: The surgical setting and the postoperative period are ripe for communication errors since patients usually are under anesthesia or groggy and cannot speak for themselves. Examples of these errors include paperwork that fails to communicate a patient’s allergy to a medication or food item or doctors who don’t notice that allergy on the patient’s health records could result in disaster. Not adhering to standard notation, such as putting a zero before a decimal point, could also give rise to dosage errors when administering medications.
  • Prescribing medications that could cause drug interactions: Many patients take prescription or over-the-counter drugs or supplements to manage chronic conditions or enhance their health. Doctors who fail to check for drug interactions with these substances when they prescribe a medication or neglect to look over a patient’s current medications list, too, can cause serious injury to their patients.

Who Is Liable for Medical Errors?

When you or a loved one has become the victim of a medical error, you want to seek justice. To do that, you first must retain an attorney who can identify who is liable for that error and do the background research to prove your case in court. Usually, one of the following parties bears responsibility for your medical error.

  • Physicians: The attending physician or the surgeon performing the procedure must take responsibility for any errors committed under their watch. Whether it’s a misdiagnosis, a lack of medical knowledge, or poor communication, it’s usually a doctor who is liable for most medical errors.
  • Hospital or office staff: Nurses and other healthcare workers could also prove liable for a medical error. Failure to check in on a patient’s condition, neglecting to read a doctor’s orders carefully, or not watching for an adverse reaction to a medication could also give rise to liability claims.
  • The facility where the error occurred: In most cases, hospitals and other healthcare facilities insulate themselves against malpractice claims by treating their physicians as independent contractors. However, the hospital might prove liable for your injury if it fails to fire incompetent personnel, mishandles medical records, or does not provide adequate staff to keep the facility clean and safe.

Damages in Connecticut Surgical Error Claims

Connecticut law holds surgeons to a high standard of care. One mistake before, during, or after a surgical procedure can cause serious injury or death. If you or your loved one suffered injury or loss of life due to a surgical error, you have every right to file a lawsuit for the damages you endured.

Damages vary by case and the injury you incurred. First, your attorney must prove that your doctor or other healthcare provider was negligent in one or more factors that led to the injury. Most surgical errors are preventable, so they usually occur due to negligence on the surgeon’s part.

Typically, you can recover damages from a surgical error for the additional medical care you must undergo, the time you missed from work, and the pain and trauma you experienced due to the injury.

In addition, you can also recover damages for any future medical care you might incur from your injury, future lost earnings, and any permanent disability the injury caused. If a loss of life occurred, your damages could include funeral expenses and the loss of support you suffered due to your loved one’s death.

Your medical malpractice attorney will work with you to determine how your injury occurred, whether your doctor or another person breached the standard of care, and identify the liable party or parties.

Experienced Surgical Error Attorneys in Connecticut

If you or a loved one suffered a serious injury or loss of life from a surgical error, our experienced surgical error lawyers are here to help. With a staff of compassionate lawyers who leave no stone unturned in pursuing justice in every medical malpractice case they handle, you’ll be in good hands with Hassett & George.

Put our 350 years of combined experience to work for you while you focus on your recovery. Schedule a consultation with one of our compassionate surgical error attorneys today. Some of the locations our attorneys serve include Simsbury, Glastonbury, Hartford, and more.