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Thousands of Mistakes Made in Surgery Every Year

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WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Dec. 26, 2012 -- More than 4,000 preventable mistakes occur in surgery every year at a cost of more than $1.3 billion in medical malpractice payouts, according a new study.

How preventable? Well, researchers call them "never events" because they are the kind of surgical mistakes that should never happen, like performing the wrong procedure or leaving a sponge inside a patient's body after surgery.

But researchers found that paid malpractice settlements and judgments for these types of never events occurred about 10,000 times in the U.S. between 1990 and 2010. Their analysis estimates that each week surgeons:

  • Leave a foreign object like a sponge or towel inside a patient's body after an operation 39 times
  • Perform the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times
  • Operate on the wrong body site 20 times

"I continue to find the frequency of these events alarming and disturbing," says Donald Fry, MD, executive vice president at Michael Pine and Associates, a health care think tank in Chicago. "I think it's a difficult thing for clinicians to talk about, but it is something that must be improved."

Surgical Mishaps Happen

In the study, researchers looked at malpractice claim information for surgical never events from the National Practitioner Data Bank from 1990 to 2010. The results are published in Surgery.

Malpractice settlements and judgments relating to leaving a sponge or other object inside a patient, performing the wrong operation, operating on the wrong site or on the wrong person were included in their analysis.

The results showed a total of 9,744 paid malpractice judgments and claims for these types of never events were reported over the 20-year period, totaling $1.3 billion.

Based on these results, researchers estimate that 4,044 surgical never events occur each year in the U.S.

Researchers say the actual number of these surgical mistakes is likely even higher.

"What we report is the low end of the range because many never events go unreported," says researcher Marty Makary, MD, MPH, associate professor of surgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

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