Surgical Errors that Lead to Medical Malpractice Lawsuits

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There are a number of serious medical mistakes that lead to medical malpractice lawsuits, including misdiagnosis, medication errors, and patient infections due to poor hospital staff hygiene and cleaning.

According to new research, surgical errors are the second leading cause for medical malpractice claims (following only diagnostic mistakes), with the overwhelming reason due, but not limited to, to the surgeon’s performance.

Coverys is a company that provides medical malpractice insurance to physicians.  In February it released findings of its internal research into medical errors that harm patients. The white paper (“A Dose of Insight – Surgery Risks: Through the Lens of Liability Claims”) details the company’s review of about 10,000 closed medical malpractice claims over a five-year period, 2014-2018.

Of those 10,000 medical malpractice lawsuits, just about 25% were for patient harm suffered during surgery. The report states that the average person in America will, in a lifetime, undergo nine surgical procedures.

Most Common Types of Surgeries Leading to Medical Malpractice Claims

Three categories of surgeries accounted for almost half of all medical malpractice lawsuits:

  • General surgery – 22% of medical malpractice lawsuits
  • Orthopedic surgery – 17% of medical malpractice lawsuits
  • Neurosurgery – 8% of medical malpractice lawsuits

The harm due to all surgical errors included in this study was by and large very serious.  The injuries in about three out of 10 cases were labeled “permanent significant” or worse.  Nine percent of the patients died as a result of surgical errors.

The most common allegation in the medical malpractice lawsuits for surgical mistakes involved the performance of the surgeon during the procedure – 78% of the claims. Other top allegations of surgical mistakes included:

  • Leaving a foreign object in the patient
  • Procedure performed on the wrong patient or the wrong site
  • Delay in the procedure

The study found that many medical malpractice lawsuits involved surgeons who were very experienced in the particular procedure.  But it revealed that many times avoidable distractions in the operating room may have impaired a surgeon’s performance.

Those distractions included providers talking on cell phones, loud music in the OR, and a large number of staff members entering and leaving.

Surgical Mistakes Due to Poor Communication

Poor communication was another factor contributing to the surgical errors included in the study. More than 10% of the medical malpractice claims alleged a failure in communication among the surgical teams. Examples cited were:

  • Surgical staff afraid to confront a surgeon
  • Surgical teams assembled quickly with little experience operating as a unit
  • Healthcare providers who failed to document a patient’s history

Problems during patient handoffs – periods before and following surgical procedures - were another significant source of patient harm.  Mistakes made before surgery, which accounted for 14% of the lawsuits, included:

  • Discussions with patients regarding their consent
  • Patient testing
  • Patient assessments

Factors that lead to serious patient complications following surgery – another 18% of medical malpractice claims – were:

  • Patient monitoring
  • Post-operative transitions
  • Discharge instructions given to patients

The study provides several recommendations to minimize the risks of dangerous errors made on surgical patients.

Healthcare providers should always consider other appropriate alternative treatments.  Hospital administrators and other medical leaders should strive to improve how surgical teams work together.  And providers should focus not only on the surgical procedure but also ensure that proper precautions are taken during the important pre and post-operatives stages of patient care.

If you were seriously injured or had a family die during or following surgery, speak with a medical malpractice attorney, who can determine what went wrong and who is responsible.

The choice of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely on advertisements.

Authored by Gray Ritter Graham, posted in Articles March 30, 2020

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