Major Surgical Error “Never Events” on the Rise


Grievous surgical errors may seem unthinkable, but they occur more often that you probably realize. Although it might feel like something out of a bad movie script, surgical errors occur many times every day in the United States. These irreversible mistakes include amputating the wrong limb, removing organs from the wrong people and even removing the wrong organ during a surgical procedure. You may also be surprised to know that most of these mistakes are the result of easily preventable human errors.
The Prevalence of Extreme Surgical Mistakes

A recent study* determined that more than 4,000 “never events” — errors that should never happen — occur every year, which equates to almost 80 such mistakes each week, or about one in every 12,500 U.S. surgeries. Another study from the Archives of Surgery demonstrated that doctors in Colorado alone operate on the wrong body part nearly 20 times each year. Experts estimate that many more errors of this nature go unreported. The numbers are increasing as well. In Minnesota, for example, 18 wrong surgeries were reported in 2004. That number has risen steadily, with 50 such errors reported in 2011. Apparently an increasing awareness of the problem is doing little to diminish it.

Why Grievous Surgical Errors Occur

Many surgical failures are caused by mixing up patient medical records, test results or samples. Wrong-limb amputation has occurred due to confusion in pre-operative care, failure to validate records and failure to observe basic safety protocols. Virtually every extreme surgical mistake can be traced back to some form of human error. Statistics show that even the most seasoned surgeons have been responsible for a “never event,” from the youngest, least experienced doctors to those with decades of surgery under their belts. These errors are costly as well as emotionally devastating. Between 1990 and 2010, insurance companies paid out more than $1.3 billion in legal settlements on botched surgeries.

Error Prevention Efforts

Health organizations are trying to put an end to surgical mix-ups. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons has launched an initiative called “Sign Your Site” that encourages surgeons to initial the actual surgical site before operating. To combat the chances of having the wrong limb cut off, the Joint Commission on the Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations has released steps for surgeons to follow. The list asks doctors, hospitals, and nurses to:

  • Mark the operation site and involve patients in the process.
  • Require oral verification of the correct site by each member of the operating team.
  • Follow a verification checklist that ensures that the limb being amputated is the correct limb and that the limb is in need of amputation.
  • Directly involve the operating surgeons in the informed consent process.
  • Engage in ongoing monitoring to make sure verification procedures are followed.

Despite ongoing initiatives to improve surgical safety protocols, mistakes continue to be made. If you or a loved one has experienced a major surgical error, contact Rasmussen and Miner for help with your medical malpractice claim. Medical experts agree that more lives could be saved by increasing patient safety than by any other single improvement in our health care system. Until that day, however, people’s lives will continue to be devastated by grievous surgical errors.