Study: U.S. Surgeons Still Leaving Things in Patients

More

Despite widespread quality assurance and safety measures, so-called "never events" occured on average 4,082 times each year between 1990 and 2010.

RTX3WO1615.jpg
Asim Tanveer/Reuters

PROBLEM: When something goes wrong during a surgery that can be chalked up to human error or a breakdown in the chain of command -- say, a surgical sponge getting left behind in someone's abdomen -- surgeons refer to it as a "never event." Because they should never happen. Unfortunately, they sometimes still do. Measuring how, when, where, and why they happen is a step toward making them literal never events.

METHODOLOGY: Johns Hopkins researchers raided a federal trove of official medical malpractice claims to find instances where patients successfully sued -- meaning they needed to have had adequate proof to back up their claims -- over never events that nonetheless occurred. Specifically, they looked at incidents that occurred in the U.S. from 1990 to 2010.

RESULTS: "Never," according to their findings, occurs at least 4,082 times per year. Deaths attributable to these mistakes occurred in 6.6 percent of patients, 32.9 claimed permanent injury, and payments doled out totaled $1.3 billion.

Looked at another way, the researchers estimate that every week, 39 foreign objects are left behind in a patient's body, 20 procedures are performed on the wrong body site, and another 20 are the wrong procedure to begin with. And 12.4 percent of surgeons were repeat offenders.

CONCLUSION: Preventable errors, the researchers conclude, are exacting a serious toll on patients and the health care system.

IMPLICATIONS: Marty Makary, this study's lead author, is a huge proponent of increased transparency in health care; as he told The Atlantic in September, "I think if all of that information is public, patients will not have to walk into a hospital blind. They'll know about the quality of care in their hospital, and the hospital, most importantly, will be accountable." In this case, simple measures that are already used in many medical centers -- like having procedures in place to count sponges and double-triple-quadruple-check patient information before and after surgeries -- can go a long way toward reducing these numbers. In order to drive their widespread implementation in hospitals, Makary argues now, we need to have more data like that revealed in this study to urge them along.

The full study, "Surgical never events in the United States," is published in the journal Surgery .

Jump to comments
Presented by

Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Ghost Trains of America

Can a band of locomotive experts save vintage railcars from ruin?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Video

What If Emoji Lived Among Us?

A whimsical ad imagines what life would be like if emoji were real.

Video

Living Alone on a Sailboat

"If you think I'm a dirtbag, then you don't understand the lifestyle."

Video

How Is Social Media Changing Journalism?

How new platforms are transforming radio, TV, print, and digital

Video

The Place Where Silent Movies Sing

How an antique, wind-powered pipe organ brings films to life

Feature

The Future of Iced Coffee

Are artisan businesses like Blue Bottle doomed to fail when they go mainstream?

Writers

Up
Down

More in Health

Just In