Never say never: thousands of surgical “never events” each year

Having surgery is not likely to be on anyone's must-do list. However, if it is needed, the patient rightly expects the surgeon to not make an egregious or obvious mistake. Unfortunately, according to a recent study, such mistakes are made more often than you might think.

The study was recently conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins and published in the journal Surgery. The study found that a certain type of surgical error called a "never event"-a mistake so obvious that it should never happen-actually occurs quite often. Never events are comprised of mistakes such as:

  • Leaving surgical equipment or tools in the patient following the procedure
  • Performing the incorrect surgical procedure
  • Operating on the wrong patient
  • Operating on the wrong body part

To gather information for the study, researchers used the National Practitioner Data Bank, a repository of medical malpractice claims kept by the federal government, to identify malpractice judgments and settlements where never events occurred. What the researchers found was shocking.

Researchers found that between 1990 and 2010, an estimated 80,000 never events occurred; however, they believe that the actual number of occurrences is much higher. From the data, researchers estimated that a surgeon in the United States leaves a foreign object in the body about 39 times per week, preforms the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times per week and operates on the wrong body part 20 times per week.

Researchers also found, unsurprisingly, that never events cause the patient to suffer severely. About 33 percent of patients who had experienced a never event were left with permanent injuries, 59 percent with temporary ones. Just over six percent, unfortunately, lost their lives due to a never event, most having received the wrong surgical procedure.

To minimize the likelihood of never events, hospitals routinely use safeguards such as:

  • "Timeouts" before a procedure to ensure that the medical records and surgical plans match the patient on the operating room table
  • Using permanent ink to mark surgical sites before the patient is anesthetized
  • Counting sponges, towels and other surgical implements before and after the procedure

However, the study's researchers noted that these safeguards are not foolproof. As a result, many hospitals are turning to technology such as affixing bar codes to surgical instruments to be scanned before and after procedures, ensuring that the instrument count is accurate.

Consult an attorney

Washington law requires surgeons to provide medical care that meets a certain minimum standard. If a never event occurs during an operation, in many cases, the surgeon would be legally considered to have committed medical malpractice.

Washington victims of malpractice are entitled to recover damages such as pain and suffering, present and future medical expenses and lost wages. If you or a loved one has been a victim of malpractice, it is well advised to consult an experienced malpractice attorney to learn about your right to compensation.