Occasionally you’ll hear a story in the news about a person who went in for surgery and the doctor operated on the wrong body part. It is almost hard to believe that these situations actually occur. These stories are rarely picked up by mainstream news sources. For every one we see, there are many we don’t.
Every week in the United States, 40 wrong-site surgeries occur.
Forty—every week is what some statistics show. So, if these surgeries are so common, what’s being done to prevent them and is there anything you can do as a patient to protect yourself?
In 2004, mandatory rules were set to prevent these wrong surgeries. These rules came from the Joint Commission in Chicago and were a “universal protocol” to lessen the number of wrong-site operations. They included, among other things, preoperative verification of details, marking the surgical sites, and even a “timeout” to ensure everything is in place and the site is confirmed just before surgery.
But several years have passed since those rules went into effect. And the problem is still present. In 2004, 49 cases of wrong-site surgeries were reported to the Joint Commission. In 2010, it was 93. While not all of these mistakes are reported to the Joint Commission, the rising rate provides a good indication that the problem is not going away and may actually be getting worse. According to Kaiser Health News:
[w]hat seemed pretty straightforward in 2004 now seems more complicated. “I’d argue that this really is rocket science,” said Mark Chassin, a former New York state health commissioner and since 2008 president of the Joint Commission, which has issued refinements to the 2004 directive. Chassin said he thinks such errors are growing in part because of increased time pressures. Preventing wrong-site surgery also “turns out to be more complicated to eradicate than anybody thought,” he said, because it involves changing the culture of hospitals and getting doctors — who typically prize their autonomy, resist checklists and underestimate their propensity for error — to follow standardized procedures and work in teams.
“It’s disheartening that we haven’t moved the needle on this,” said Peter Pronovost, a prominent safety expert and medical director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Innovation in Quality Patient Care. “I think we made national policy with a relatively superficial understanding of the problem.” Pronovost suggests that doctors’ lip service to the rules, which he calls “ritualized compliance,” may be a key factor. Studies of wrong-site errors have consistently revealed a failure by physicians to participate in a timeout.
As a patient, it’s in your best interest to double-check with your surgeon immediately before your procedure to make sure that he or she knows what they are operating on. It sounds pretty basic, but it could save your life or limb.
The Law Office of Kelley J. Johnson Indiana Malpractice Attorney
All medical malpractice cases are serious. When you put your body on the operating table, you should be able to trust that you’re in good hands. When an “accident” or mistake happens, someone must be held responsible, and our lawyer can help.