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Report Shows Surgeons Making Too Many Preventable Mistakes

Surgical mistakes that doctors should never make because they are preventable happen a minimum of 4,000 times a year, according to Johns Hopkins researchers.

Such events can include forgetting a sponge, towel or other foreign object inside the patient’s body after surgery. This type of mistake was found by the researchers to occur at least 39 times a week by surgeons in the U.S. Doing the wrong surgical procedure happens 20 times weekly in the country and doing surgery on the wrong site in the body also happens 20 times each week, on average.

The report by the Johns Hopkins researchers appeared online in the journal Surgery and was recounted in the Dec. 30, 2112, online issue of Medical News Today.

The scientists said they analyzed national malpractice claims to arrive at their numbers. They called these mistakes “never events” because they should never happen during surgery according to a general consensus among surgeons. Some surgical events, such as infection, are not 100 percent unavoidable, even when best medical practices are followed.

“There are mistakes in health care that are not preventable. Infection rates will likely never get down to zero, even if everyone does everything right, for example,” said lead author of the study, Marty Makary. Dr. Makary, who was quoted in the Medical News Today article, has an M.D. and M.P.H., and is an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

The study involved a 20-year analysis of the National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB), which collects information on malpractice claims in the country. The statistics the data bank collects categorize both malpractice judgments and settlements outside of court. The information concerned leaving a foreign object in a patient, operating on the wrong site or doing the wrong procedure, or operating on the wrong patient.

Among their findings, the researchers discovered that over the 20-year-period of their study:

  • 9,744 malpractice judgments and claims were paid
  • The total of the claims reached $1.3 billion
  • Death happened in 6.6 percent of patients
  • Permanent injury occurred in 32.9 percent of patients
  • Temporary injury affected 59.2 percent of patients

Dr. Makary said he thought all the claims made were legitimate. “A sponge left behind. . . . can be proven by taking an X-ray.”

Legally, hospitals must report to the NPDB those never events ending in a settlement or judgment.

Many medical centers have instituted safety procedures such as operating room personnel being required to ensure that the medical records and surgical plans are those of the patient being prepared for surgery. Those assisting during surgery use other procedures to help avoid mistakes. These include using an indelible ink pen to indicate the surgical site or counting towels, sponges, and surgical instruments used during a procedure.

Other data the researchers collected showed:

  • The mistakes occurred in patients aged 40 to 49
  • The surgeons making these mistakes were also 40 to 49
  • Mistakes made by surgeons older than 60 totaled 14.4 percent
  • 62 percent of the surgeons were mentioned in more than one separate malpractice report
  • 12.4 percent of the surgeons were cited in separate surgical events

Dr. Makary said he thought never events should be published for everyone to see, including patients, to help them choose where to have surgery. This should pressure hospitals, he said, to make a greater effort towards safety during surgery.


If you feel that you have been harmed by a preventable medical mistake, you should talk to an attorney about your right to compensation. The Raleigh, North Carolina medical malpractice attorneys at Kelly & West believe that doctors and other healthcare providers should pay for their mistakes. To schedule a consultation with a qualified attorney from the firm, contact Kelly & West today.

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