Surgical errors are unfortunately common. Although classed in the category of "never events," or types of medical malpractice that should never occur, surgical errors such as amputating the wrong body part persist.
There are many things that patients can do to try to protect themselves from surgical errors, but in many cases even the best practices cannot prevent you from this severe type of medical malpractice, although you may be able to receive compensation for injuries suffered.
The Scope of the Problem
Dozens of people every year may suffer from wrong site surgery, and the number of victims increased steadily from 1999 to 2004, according to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. It's hard to know the exact scope of the problem because it is generally under-reported by doctors, but a 2010 report looking just at events in Colorado (where doctors are incentivized to self-report medical errors) from 2002 to mid-2008 reported the following statistics:
- 25 operations -including 3 prostatectomies (the removal of the prostate)-performed on the wrong patient
- 107 procedures performed on the wrong body part
Although past estimates have suggested that these events were fairly rare, occurring only once in every 110,000 procedures, the data from Colorado suggests that they may be much more frequent and may even be increasing since 2004, despite new protocols intended to prevent them.
Preventing Surgical Errors
In 2004, doctors, nurses, and hospitals instituted new procedures aimed at preventing these traumatic surgical errors. These procedures included:
- Surgeons must now literally sign the incision site, whenever possible while the patient is awake and able to assent to the mark
- Standardized markings used to ensure that all surgeons were using the same icons to indicate which limb to operate on
- A time-out before surgery where everyone in the operating room must agree on the patient and procedure to be performed
- Everyone in the operating theater is empowered to speak up if they believe a surgery is being performed incorrectly.
When these procedures were instituted, it was hoped that the number of wrong-site and wrong-patient errors would go down.
Your Role in Preventing Errors
Although the surgeon is the one who might make the error, you have an opportunity to prevent it. First, make sure you meet your actual surgeon before the surgery. Don't just talk to an internist or hospitalist or nurse-make sure you meet the actual surgeon and discuss the surgical details.
Next, ask if you can be awake for the surgery. This is not always an option, but for some types of surgery it may be. However, if you are squeamish, this also may not be a good option.
Be aware of the procedure and your likely course of recovery. If anything seems amiss, talk to your doctor or surgeon immediately. The impact of many types of error can be reduced if detected quickly.
When You're a Victim
However, even if you do everything you can to try to prevent it, you may be a victim of surgical error. This may mean additional medical bills, lost wages, and, potentially, irreversible damage to your earning capacity and quality of life. When this occurs, you may be able to receive compensation for your injury.
To learn whether you can receive compensation after a surgical error, you need to talk to a lawyer. Many medical malpractice lawyers offer free consultations so you can learn about your legal rights and options.