Doctors call them “never events” because they are never supposed to happen. In surgery this term applies to things like leaving an instrument or a sponge inside the patient, operating on the wrong side or part of the body, or doing the wrong operation.
In the 21st century, modern hospitals should have systems in place to prevent such mistakes. They are always avoidable. There is absolutely no excuse for a surgeon operating on the wrong body part or leaving behind a six-inch stainless steel tool in someone’s abdomen. And yet a new study published in the journal Surgery (online Dec. 17, 2012) titled “Surgical Never Events in the United States” reports that these mistakes remain distressingly common.
According to the authors, roughly 4,000 never events occur each year in U.S. hospitals. Roughly 40 times a week a sponge or a towel is left behind inside a patient. About 20 times a week the wrong side or the wrong body part is operated on. And about the same number of times the wrong operation is performed.
Here is how the researchers came up with these numbers. In 1986 Congress passed legislation requiring records of all malpractice payments. Whenever a malpractice claim is paid or settled (even if it is a hush-hush out-of-court deal) it has to be recorded in the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB). The investigators at Johns Hopkins “identified 9,744 paid malpractice reports with surgical never events between September 1990 and September 2010.” They then went on to extrapolate:
“Based on the number of paid claims we identified in the NPDB and the literature estimates of surgical adverse events resulting in paid claims, we estimated that 4,082 surgical never claims occur each year in the United States (retained foreign body = 2,024/ year; wrong-procedure surgery = 1,020/year; wrong-site surgery = 1,005/year; wrong-patient surgery = 33/year).”
These numbers may represent a substantial underestimation of the actual number of serious surgical mistakes made annually. Keep in mind that these researchers analyzed malpractice claims. That means a lawyer had to take on the case and move it through the court system. Many “never events” go unrecognized by patients. They may live with chronic discomfort not realizing that a sponge was left behind during surgery. Others may not be able to convince an attorney to take their case. Still other cases are settled without getting into the legal system. There is no mandatory reporting system in this country when a surgeon makes a bad error during an operation.
Consider this: A 5-year study of surgical adverse events at three surgical centers revealed that 130 patients were harmed. Yet only 12% of the patients who were injured by the surgery itself received a payment (Annals of Surgery, June, 2003). These investigators found that over two-thirds of patients who are injured because of an adverse surgical event never sue. It is entirely possible that the number of serious surgical mistakes is much higher than anyone imagines.
When someone has the wrong leg amputated or a routine X-ray reveals a metal clamp left behind, it is dramatic and horrifying. Such mistakes make headlines, but they are only the tip of the iceberg. In our book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them, we discovered that hundreds of thousands of patients die each year because of health care harm (iatrogenesis). Here are some statistics to consider:
- Fatal Hospital Acquired Infections = More than 100,000 deaths/yr.
- Fatal Adverse Drug Events in hospitals = 106,000/yr.
- Fatal Adverse Drug Events in nursing homes = 93,000/yr.
- Misdiagnosis leading to death in hospitals = 100,000/yr.
- Pressure ulcers (bed sores) leading to death 60,000/yr.
These stats do not include venous thromboembolisms (blood clots in veins) that can lead to pulmonary embolisms [blood clots in the lungs] and death. They do not take into account excessive radiation which may indirectly lead to thousands of deaths annually from cancer (Archives of Internal Medicine, Dec. 14, 2009).
Then there are the people who die from adverse drug events at home. When a person has a heart attack or a stroke after taking an arthritis drug like diclofenac, it is rarely, if ever, attributed to the prescribed medication. No one has a clue how many people die from such complications of drug treatment.
The bottom line is that the number of people who die from health care harm is roughly comparable to the number of people who die from heart attacks or cancer each year. And yet there is no outrage and little effort to solve the problem. There is no “war on errors” like the war on cancer.
Where does that leave you, the patient? In essence, you are on your own. Expect mistakes to happen. Before you agree to surgery here are the questions to ask:
- What exactly will be done?
- Why has it been recommended?
- Are there any alternatives to this surgery?
- What kind of anesthesia will be used and what are the side effects? Are there any alternatives that are safer?
- Is there is a checklist system in place in the O.R. before every surgical procedure?
- Will the surgeon sign the side of the body and the body part that is to be operated on and can you verify it is correct before undergoing anesthesia?
If you would like a more in-depth understanding of the kinds of medical mishaps that commonly occur every day in the U.S. and around the world, you may find our book, Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them, of value. We will help you make your next doctor visit or hospital stay safer.
We provide top 10 tips for:
- Stopping screwups in hospitals
- Avoiding diagnostic disasters
- Preventing dangerous drug interactions or adverse drug events
- Sidestepping pharmacy errors
- Avoiding generic drug problems
- Preventing medical problems for people over 65
And please share your story below. We would like to know if you ever experienced an error and a bad reaction. How did you assert yourself prior to anesthesia or surgery? We would like to learn about successes so that others can benefit from your interactions with the health care system.