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How Common Are Surgical Errors?


As with any medical procedure, surgery comes with its own set of risks. One of the most concerning of these is the occurrence of surgical errors. These mistakes represent a failure to meet a professional duty of care and can have serious consequences for patients, ranging from minor complications to life-threatening situations.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the prevalence of surgical errors, explore the factors contributing to them, and talk about some steps that can be taken to minimize them.

What To Know About Errors That Occur During Surgeries

It’s important to grasp what constitutes a surgical error. A surgical error is any preventable mistake that occurs during surgery, whether it’s the result of negligence, miscommunication, or lack of proper planning. These errors can include wrong-site surgery, medication errors, anesthesia mistakes, and leaving surgical instruments inside the body, among others.

Gauging the exact prevalence of surgical errors can be challenging due to underreporting and variability in data collection methods. However, studies provide some insight into the frequency of these occurrences.

According to the Maryland Patient Safety Center (MPSC), surgical errors are estimated to occur in approximately 0.5% to 1% of all surgeries performed in the United States annually. Extrapolating from these numbers suggests that Maryland, with its robust health care infrastructure, likely experiences a proportionate share of surgical errors.

While this percentage may seem small, it translates to thousands of patients experiencing preventable harm each year.

Common Types of Surgical Errors

Surgery is a complex medical procedure that involves various steps and a team of health care professionals working together to achieve the best possible outcomes for patients. However, despite rigorous training and stringent protocols, surgical errors can occur.

Some of the most common of these include:

  • Wrong-Site Surgery: One of the most alarming types of surgical errors is wrong-site surgery, where the operation is performed on the incorrect part of the body. Wrong-site surgery can result in unnecessary harm to the patient, additional surgeries to correct the mistake, and long-term physical and emotional consequences.
  • Medication Errors: Errors in dosages or improperly prescribed medications cost approximately 7,000 to 9,000 lives each year according to the National Library of Medicine (NLM). These errors may involve administering the wrong medication, incorrect dosage, or inappropriate timing of medication administration.
  • Anesthesia Mistakes: Anesthesia mistakes may include administering too much or too little anesthesia, failing to monitor the patient’s vital signs adequately, or overlooking underlying medical conditions that could affect anesthesia management. These errors can result in anesthesia-related complications such as respiratory depression, cardiovascular instability, or even anesthesia awareness during surgery.
  • Retained Surgical Instruments: Retained surgical instruments are surgical errors that involve leaving foreign objects, such as sponges, needles, or instruments, inside a patient’s body after surgery. Factors contributing to retained surgical instruments include inadequate counting procedures, distractions or interruptions during surgery, and reliance on manual counting methods rather than technological solutions.
  • Infection Control Failures: Lapses in infection control practices can lead to surgical errors with serious consequences for patients. Surgical site infections can prolong recovery times, increase health care costs, and pose a threat to patient safety.

Why These Negligent Oversights Happen

Several factors contribute to the occurrence of surgical errors, ranging from human error to common issues within medical facilities.

Fatigue and stress among health care providers can impair judgment and increase the likelihood of mistakes. Inadequate communication and coordination among surgical teams can also play a significant role, leading to misunderstandings or oversights during procedures. Additionally, time pressures and overcrowded operating rooms may contribute to rushed decision-making and errors.

Like many states, Maryland faces challenges related to staffing shortages, which can strain surgical teams and increase the risk of errors. More and more nurses are leaving direct patient care since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Research from consulting firm McKinsey & Company estimates a shortage of between 200,000 and 400,000 nurses by 2025.

Communication breakdowns among medical providers, insufficient pre-operative planning, and time pressures in busy operating rooms can all play a role in surgical errors, as well, and the consequences of resulting surgical errors can be devastating for patients and their families.

Beyond the physical harm caused by the error itself, patients may experience emotional distress, prolonged recovery times, and additional medical expenses.

In severe cases, surgical errors can lead to permanent disability or even death, robbing individuals of their quality of life and causing long-lasting trauma for loved ones.

Minimizing the Risk of Surgical Errors

While surgical errors can never be completely eliminated, there are steps that health  care providers and facilities can take to minimize their occurrence.

Implementing standardized protocols and checklists for surgical procedures can help reduce the likelihood of mistakes and improve communication among team members.

Comprehensive pre-operative assessments and verification processes, including patient identification and site marking, are essential for preventing wrong-site surgery.

Improving Team Communication

Effective communication is crucial in preventing surgical errors. Surgical teams should cultivate an environment where all members feel comfortable speaking up if they notice any potential issues or discrepancies.

Clear and open communication among surgeons, nurses, anesthesiologists, and other staff can help ensure that everyone is on the same page regarding the details of the procedure and patient care plan.

Investing in Training and Education

Continued training and education for medical providers are vital for maintaining high standards of patient safety in surgical settings.

Ongoing professional development programs can help refresh knowledge, reinforce best practices, and introduce new techniques or technologies aimed at reducing the risk of errors. Simulation training exercises can also provide valuable hands-on experience in managing potential complications and emergencies.

Maryland health care institutions are actively engaged in efforts to mitigate the risk of surgical errors and improve patient safety.

The MPSC collaborates with hospitals and providers across the state to implement evidence-based practices aimed at reducing medical errors, including those occurring in surgical settings. These initiatives focus on enhancing communication, standardizing protocols, and fostering a culture of safety within health care organizations.

Unfortunately, surgical issues and malpractice in general occur all too frequently in the United States.

Data from the American Medical Association (AMA) show that nearly one-third (31.2%) of physicians reported in 2022 that they had previously been sued for negligence or error. By understanding the types of surgical errors, identifying contributing factors, and implementing targeted interventions, Maryland health care facilities can work towards improving patient safety and reducing the incidence of surgical errors.

All stakeholders within the health care system must remain vigilant and proactive in identifying and addressing factors that contribute to surgical errors, ultimately ensuring better outcomes for patients undergoing surgery.

At GDH Law, we help individuals harmed by medical providers. We can help you, too. Call or email us for a free consultation to discuss your case and your rights within it.

If you or a loved one has been the victim of a surgical error, and you have any questions about your rights to justice and fair compensation, our experienced medical malpractice lawyers here at GDH Law are ready to help.

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