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How Do Surgical Errors Lead to Lawsuits?

Written by Berkowitz

surgical errors

Malpractice Attorney Fighting for Victims of Surgical Errors in Connecticut

A patient agrees to a surgical procedure to feel better. Whether it is an emergency procedure to save the patient’s life or a procedure that is meant to improve quality of life, it is realistic for a patient to expect to come out of that surgery feeling better in some way.

However, there are instances where a surgery can go wrong, and a patient could be in a worse position than he or she was in prior to that surgery.

From errors in the operating room to postoperative care negligence, there may be a time in a patient’s life when he or she must file a lawsuit against a surgeon, healthcare provider, or hospital. Sadly, many patients do not realize they are the victim of surgical errors, and many will not notice the effects of those errors until they have been discharged.

If you suspect that you or a loved one are the victim of a surgical error, contact a medical malpractice lawyer as soon as possible. While waiting for your consultation, consider some of the common errors that lead to lawsuits in the first place, and see if any apply to your potential claim.

Five Surgical Errors that Lead to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

1. Surgical Instruments and Retained Foreign Objects in the Body

Several studies have shown that an alarming number of surgical tools are left in patients each year. In fact, one new report found that nearly 800 patients had surgical tools left in their body following a surgical procedure in 2005. The report, issued by The Joint Commission, was designed to highlight common surgical errors.

In this particular report, they focused on the need for protocols to ensure patients have not retained foreign objects, such as towels, needles, instruments, retractors, sponges, and more.

In their report, they found that there were 772 instances of retained foreign objects from 2005 to 2012. Out of those 772 patients, 16 died as a result. In these cases, 95 percent of the patients stayed in the hospital longer, and the most common sites for these retained foreign objects occurred in operating rooms, labor and delivery suites, ambulatory surgery centers, and during outpatient procedures like colonoscopy centers.

Retained foreign objects are extremely dangerous, and can significantly increase the patient’s risk for infection and further complications. A surgical sponge, for example, could adhere to the patient’s organs and require extensive surgery to repair – sometimes leaving a patient permanently disabled.

2. Postoperative Infections

Infections pose a serious risk for patients of surgery. It is estimated that one out of 20 patients will develop an infection during the hospital stay, and hospital infections kill approximately 98,000 Americans each year.

Known as hospital-acquired infections (HAIs), an estimated 648,000 people develop an infection in United States hospitals each year. Consumer Reports states that more than 75,000 die, which is twice the number of those who die in a motor vehicle crash each year. Most of those illnesses and infections are traced back to infections and the antibiotics used to treat them. Hospitals are a hotspot for the spread of antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria, such as MRSA.

Not all hospital-acquired infections are the result of negligence. Most HAIs are caught long before they become life-threatening, and they can quickly be eradicated with the use of a proper antibiotic. However, when the infection goes unnoticed or undiagnosed, it can lead to a more serious infection, and possibly death.

Criteria for an HAI Lawsuit

For an infection to be classified as an HAI, it must occur within 48 hours after hospital admittance. An infection that starts outside that window may not be the result of hospital error or contamination. Also, the HAI typically must occur in one of three ways, such as:

  1. Patient Risk – Patients staying in the hospital often have weakened immune systems. The longer they say in the hospital, and the procedure performed, could increase their risk for an HAI. The hospital should have a protocol in place to protect them from an HAI.
  2. Organizational Risks – This focuses on the cleanliness and sanitization protocols of the hospitals. Hospitals are required to properly sanitize medical equipment, clean patient beds, have clean water and HVAC systems, and more. If the facility is not properly maintained or sanitized in accordance with laws, it increases the likelihood of HAIs spreading through the facility.
  3. Iatrogenic Risks – These risks are associated with the healthcare providers, such as nursing staff or physicians. If physicians do not properly wash their hands, or if they are sick at the time they perform an in-depth procedure, they may be the reason an HAI spreads through the hospital.

3. Patient Falls

Patient falls are common in surgical procedures. When patients are not properly secured to the operating table, they could fall in the middle of a procedure and suffer from contusions, broken bones, or severe organ damage.

Operating staff is required to properly secure the patient to the operating table before surgery. The physician should always verify that the patient is properly secured before starting the procedure.

Some patients are at higher risk of falling from a surgical table, especially those who are overweight or severely obese. More hospitals are taking measures to secure surgical tables to the floor to prevent them from tipping over during the procedure due to a patient’s weight. However, surgical units have the lowest rate of falls compared to patients falling from their beds during recovery or falling while walking in the hospital.

4. Medication Errors

Sadly, one of the most common errors made in surgery is that of medication errors. Whether it is an adverse reaction, unmonitored vital signs, or the wrong dose of a medication, these can lead to life-threatening complications for a patient.

A study discovered that there was a high volume of surgery patients who were receiving medications inappropriately. In fact, the study assessed that patients were three times more likely to experience a medication error during surgery than anywhere else in healthcare.

A nonprofit agency known as United States Pharmacopeia looked at more than 11,000 medication errors over a seven-year period and found that most of the mistakes were due to an incorrect amount of medicine or receiving the wrong type of medication. For example, the study found that a one-week-old baby was given an adult’s dosage of blood thinner. This mistake almost cost the baby her life, but luckily, she survived. However, 1.5 million patients suffer from similar medication errors each year in the United States, per the Institute of Medicine.

In another study performed by a Harvard-affiliated hospital, an examination of over 275 operations uncovered that adverse drug events were extremely common in surgical procedures. The team observed approximately 277 surgeries, and out of those they found that 124 included a medication error or adverse event. There were more than 3,000 medications administered for those surgical procedures, and 80 percent of them were preventable errors.

The most common errors that occur in surgical medications include:

  • Mistakes with labeling
  • Incorrect dosage
  • Neglecting to treat a problem indicated by vital signs
  • Documentation errors

5. Wrong Site Surgery or Surgery Performed on the Wrong Patient

While one would assume that a surgeon would know which arm to operate on, or even which patient to operate on, there are a surprising number of instances where the wrong site or wrong patient receive the operation.

Wrong site surgeries, wrong patient procedures, and wrong procedures generally are some of the more devastating medical errors. A patient could have an organ or limb removed accidentally, or be forced to endure a double amputation because the wrong limb was amputated the first time.

These events are often referred to as WSPEs – short for wrong-side/wrong-site, wrong-procedure, and wrong-patient adverse events. They are never-events, which means that they are medical errors that should never occur, but do.

A wrong-site surgery may include operating on the wrong side. For example, one patient had the right side of her vulva removed for cancer, but the cancer was on the left side. Therefore, the incorrect body site was operated on. Another surprising error is in neurosurgery, when the wrong level of the spine is operated on.

Wrong-patient procedures are devastating. There have been instances where patients endured cardiac procedures because they had the same last name as the patient who was meant to have the procedure.

One study shows that these errors occur in one out of every 112,000 surgical procedures. While it is infrequent, it still happens more than we would like. Out of their details, they found that wrong-site surgeries on the wrong side accounted for 59 percent of the WSPEs reported, while wrong site surgery was 23 percent, wrong procedure was 14 percent, and the wrong patient surgery occurred in five percent of cases.

To avoid WSPEs from happening, more hospitals are implementing procedures and checklists. These include ensuring the right area of the patient is operated on, the proper patient is receiving the procedure, and that everything is verified before the patient goes under.

Communication is the most common reason for WSPEs; therefore, reviewing important aspects among surgical staff and the patient can easily overcome the high number of WSPEs.

Were You the Victim of a Surgical Error?

Whether you suffered from a serious hospital acquired infection, or if you were the victim of a wrong-site surgery, you do have legal options.

You should not have to endure the medical costs, rehabilitative therapy, or permanent disfigurement that may occur because of a surgical mishap. You also should not have to endure the pain and suffering associated with surgical falls or medication errors.

After a surgical error occurs and you suffer harm, contact a medical malpractice attorney to explore your options. You can meet with an injury attorney and have your case reviewed at no obligation, and a personal injury lawyer can then decide if you have a claim against the physician, hospital, or surgical center that performed the procedure.

Contact Berkowitz and Hanna LLC today to schedule a no-obligation case evaluation. Call 866-479-7909 or contact us online to get started.