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Thousands of Mistakes Made in Surgery Every Year

When Mistakes Occur

The study showed surgical mistakes happened most often to people between the ages of 40 and 49. Surgeons in this same age group were also accountable for more than a third of the never events compared with 14% for older surgeons over age 60.

"Surgeons involved in retained sponges tended to be in the middle part of their career, dispelling the idea that surgeons at the beginning or end of their careers have most of these events," says Makary.

Nearly two-thirds of surgeons involved in a surgical mistake had been cited in more than one separate malpractice report in the past, and 12.4% were named in more than one surgical never event.

How to Prevent Surgical Mistakes

Researchers say most medical centers have long had patient safety procedures in place to prevent surgical mistakes, such as mandatory "time-outs" in the operating room to make sure medical records and surgical plans match the patient on the table.

In addition, counting sponges and other equipment before and after surgery, using surgical checklists, and indelible ink to mark the site of the surgery are also common safety procedures.

Fry says even with these precautions in place, mistakes still happen.

"Even with marking the surgical site there are reports of the wrong site still being operated on, and you have to say it's a lack of attention to detail when it happens," he says.

Makary says new technology, like surgical sponges with radiofrequency tags that can be detected by a scanner, should help reduce the number of common surgical mistakes as they are adopted.

In addition to adopting new technologies to increase patient safety, Makary says a new standardized system of reporting surgical mistakes is needed to properly measure and address the problem

Finally, Makary and Fry say greater attention should be paid to the culture of safety and teamwork among nurses, surgeons, and everyone else in the operating room.

Meanwhile, Fry says it's not out of line to speak up and discuss safety concerns with your surgeon prior to surgery.

"I do think it's always appropriate for concerned patients to discuss the issues about what will be done to make sure that this doesn't happen to me or my family member," says Fry.

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