Surgical Errors: Dangers, Prevention and Recourse

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The recent death of Rep. John Murtha (D.-Pa.) following complications from a gallbladder surgery has generated public concern over preventable medical errors. According to a 2000 publication by the Institute of Medicine (IOM), extrapolating the data from two large studies (one in New York and the other in Colorado and Utah) to hospital admissions throughout the United States in 1997 indicates that at least 44,000 and perhaps as many as 98,000 Americans die each year as a result of medical errors. That is more deaths per year than result from car accidents, breast cancer or AIDS.


Surgical and medical errors vary. Defective or unsanitary equipment can add to these risks. Included in the risks patients face are:

  • Anesthesia error: Anesthesia errors such as dosage errors or failure to monitor the patient properly may result in nerve damage, brain damage or even death
  • Medication errors: The 2000 IOM publication also reports that medication errors alone, whether in or out of the hospital, account for an estimated 7,000 deaths annually
  • Surgical fires: The elements of fire – fuel, oxygen and heat – are present during surgery and, according to the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, there are approximately 100 surgical fires each year
  • Wrong site surgery: Wrong site surgery occurs when the surgeon conducts surgery on the wrong body part, for example when an operation is performed on the patient’s right arm but should have been performed on the left arm
  • Unnecessary surgery: Sometimes the operation itself may not have been warranted or the patient was not advised of less invasive alternatives
  • Injury during surgery
  • Surgical instruments or sponges left inside the patient

Education and Prevention

The Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality reports that the single most important way to help prevent errors is for patients to get involved in their healthcare and be active members of their health care team. This involves a wholly proactive approach to everything from medicine to hospital selection, when possible.


Patients should be educated on medications, herbs and supplements they take and should always advise their doctors of everything they are taking, whether prescription or over-the-counter. Patients should also advise their doctors of any known allergies or adverse reactions to drugs.

When given a prescription, it should be legible and the patient should be told for what the medicine is being prescribed, how long to take the medicine, any probable side effects and interaction with or effect on other drugs, supplements, food, drinks or activities. When filling a prescription, patients should affirm that the medicine is what the doctor prescribed, verify that they understand the directions and how to dose properly and request written information about potential side effects.


If possible, patients should choose a hospital that has performed the operation or procedure many times. The patient may also wish to inquire whether the hospital has adopted a surgical checklist as well as asking any health care workers who have direct contact whether they have washed their hands.

Each patient should be confident that he or she and the surgeon all agree and are clear on exactly what will be done and where. Upon discharge, the patient should request a treatment plan to follow at home.

As a practical matter, Dr. Savard, in a recent ABC News story, advised not to schedule the hospital stay in June, July or August, as those are the months new residents begin working and senior residents get promoted. She also cautioned to avoid surgery on Thursdays and, especially, Fridays.


Even savvy patients may be susceptible to surgical error and injury. Depending on the circumstances of the individual case, it may be possible to recover damages to compensate the victim for:

  • Past or prospective medical bills and hospitalization
  • Prescription costs
  • Past or prospective lost wages
  • Pain and suffering
  • Punitive damages

The patient may have a claim against the surgeon, nurse, anesthesiologist or nurse anesthetist or the hospital. If a patient has been injured or suffered an adverse reaction following surgery, it is important to contact an attorney for information on how to gather evidence and whether to proceed with a claim.