What is the most common surgical error?

Posted in: Medical Malpractice | Feb 24,2022

What is the most common surgical error, and how do I avoid it? It’s one of those questions that comes from a visceral, gut-level reaction to any surgery. As a human, it’s natural to feel vulnerable when you go into surgery. Your well-being is in the hands of others, and you have to take a leap of faith and put your trust in the professionals. Another factor related to this question is fear derived from anecdotal information related to surgical errors. Whether through the press, a popular television program, or something we learned in conversation, we have all heard a story of a “never” event. 

A “never” event is the term given to a medical error that should never happen but, unfortunately, has. A few actual examples: a kidney was given to the wrong patient; a doctor left a medical instrument inside a patient’s chest cavity; or a doctor performed a procedure on the incorrect body part. Yes, these events have happened, but are they the most common? While they are among the most common errors, they do not top the list. 

Before you delve more deeply into surgical errors, it’s worth noting that there is a lot of information out there and that not all information is good information. Some oft-cited statistics, such as “medical error is the third leading cause of death,” come from dubious origins yet have wormed their way into the public discourse and paint a picture of our healthcare system that is unflattering and unfair

Mistakes happen in healthcare just as they happen in all facets of life. Still, those mistakes should not be an indictment of the entire healthcare system, nor should they dissuade you from getting proper treatment from licensed professionals. Get treatment. But know that going into the hospital or outpatient center is a sober endeavor, and it’s worthwhile to prepare by knowing what the most common errors are, how you can help avoid these errors, and knowing your best recourse if an error does occur. 

So, what are the most common surgical errors? 

Lists and definitions of errors vary, but almost all seem to agree that “misdiagnosis” is the most common medical error. Adverse surgical events overlap with other treatment categories, including adverse drug events, standard medical error—sometimes termed “misadventure” (e.g. laceration), errors associated with clerical/management tasks, and errors related to medical devices. Very few doctor’s visits will include misdiagnosis, and of those, only a percentage will cause damage. It would be best, obviously, if there were no errors that cause harm; unfortunately, that’s not reality. 

Unnecessary treatment, unnecessary tests or procedures, medication mistakes, and “never events” often result in misdiagnosis. It’s not always the “high-risk” surgeries where errors occur. Some errors, like a perforated bowel, occur in relatively routine procedures. 

Below are the most common surgical errors to be aware of:

  • Misdiagnosis. The term misdiagnosis includes missed diagnosis, incorrect diagnosis, or incomplete diagnosis.
  • Anesthesia mistakes. Anesthesia must be in the correct dosage, at the proper time, while being mindful of any adverse reactions or allergies. 
  • Incorrect or faulty incision. Bad incisions can lead to infection. 
  • Foreign objects left in the surgery site. When unintended objects remain post-operatively, they can cause infection or worse. 
  • Incorrect procedure. Incorrect procedures include those performed on the wrong person or the wrong body part.

How to avoid surgical errors as a patient

You can do a few things to improve your experience as a patient and decrease the likelihood of an error. Experts offer a long list of actions you can take, some of which might not apply to your particular case, but here are a few that you might find helpful or even surprising:

  • Talk to your surgeon and anesthesiologist. Ask them about the surgery, anesthesia administration, and post-operative plan. What are the risks? What is the timeline? 
  • Will they mark the surgical site? You may request that they mark it before you go under. 
  • Stay clean. And don’t be shy about making sure staff responsible for your care is using proper hygiene as well. Staph (bacterial) infections are problematic and can exacerbate other conditions. 
  • Get a caregiver lined up for your return home. You might have read that 1 in 5 patients return to the hospital within 30 days of surgery. Having someone to help you get settled at home can make a difference.

A surgical error has harmed you. Now what? 

Suffering from a surgical error or watching a loved one suffer from a surgical error is an extremely difficult, complex situation. It can be a lonely and helpless feeling to suffer while most people exiting a healthcare facility are feeling better, embarking on a new adventure, or taking steps toward better health. If you’ve suffered harm, it can be both lonely and imposing to contemplate taking on a powerful, well-resourced entity such as a healthcare system.  

Because healthcare is typically so well-resourced, it is expected that those resources are directed toward a professional standard of care. This includes the hiring of trained personnel, the establishment of tight patient care policies and procedures, the creation of redundant verification processes, proper maintenance of equipment and facilities, and so on. An experienced medical malpractice attorney is not only intimately familiar with the law and the Indiana Medical Malpractice Act but also intimately familiar with the healthcare environment itself. 

The attorneys at Montross Miller can help those who have endured surgical errors find a path forward. We offer our prospective clients the courtesy of a free case evaluation and will work on a contingent fee plus cost-recovery basis.