Over 4,000 catastrophic surgical errors occur annually

According to a recent Johns Hopkins study, surgeons make major mistakes about 4,000 times per year. The study indicated that across the United States, surgeons leave items like sponges, towels or medical instruments inside bodies 39 times per week, operate on the wrong location 20 times per week and perform the wrong procedure 20 times per week.

It is generally agreed that these so-called "never events" represent major problems with surgical practice as a whole and should be corrected. However, they continue to persist despite obvious concerns. Surgical errors are wholly preventable, say analysts, and should not occur with such disturbing regularity.

In direct response to Johns Hopkins' findings, the New Mexico legislature is currently reviewing HM 103, a bill proposed at the first session of the state's 51st Legislature in 2013. The legislation would require hospitals to report these "never events" to the New Mexico Department of Health, which would then post the data online for public viewing. This would create much-needed accountability from hospitals and provide transparency to consumers seeking quality medical care.

Why does this problem persist?

Part of the problem is that hospitals and surgical wards receive so many patients. The significant volume of patients means that doctors, nurses and other staff often feel rushed to move from one patient to the next.

It's easy to see how accidents might occur in this environment. For example, an overburdened orderly might record the wrong information on a patient's chart, and the surgeon may not notice when it comes time for the procedure. This could lead to the surgeon accidentally performing the wrong operation.

This environment may also lead to surgeons leaving objects inside the patient. Surgeons who are overworked or overtired may not realize that an object was left inside. They may also forget to perform post-operative safety checks to ensure that all tools and devices are accounted for.

These are just a few of the ways that surgical errors might occur. Whatever the cause, it is clear that more needs to be done to prevent such dangerous mistakes.

Possible solutions

Some of the best hospitals are developing patient care strategies designed to mitigate surgical errors. The issue of surgical safety is growing increasingly important, considering that our aging population means that hospitals are only going to get busier.

Some of the best hospitals are developing patient care strategies designed to mitigate surgical errors. These include making sure that multiple nurses are watching for each write-down and hand-off of data and having a nurse in the operating room whose sole job is to keep inventory of sponges and instruments used during the procedure. Other hospitals are even going so far as purchasing surgical implements equipped with RFID chips and using computer programs that tell surgeons if items have been left inside.

Some hospitals, however, still continue to resist these measures, arguing that they drive up surgical costs. However, compared to the $1.3 billion in medical malpractice settlements the National Practitioner Data Bank says have been paid out over the last two decades, safety measures such as these seem like an investment that can be enormously cost-effective.

The rights of injured patients

When a major mistake happens, it is important for injured patients to take steps to protect their rights. The wrong surgery or a foreign object left inside the body can lead to grave consequences. Not only can a malpractice claim potentially compensate for the expenses associated with any injuries sustained by these errors, but it helps to put pressure on New Mexico hospitals to change their ways and reduce the incidence of these surgical errors in the future.