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What are wrong-site surgical errors?

Wrong-site surgery is one of the most devastating surgical errors in the medical field today. What happens if a doctor in Maryland operates on the wrong body part of the patient? What will the consequences be if a patient undergoes a procedure that was intended for another patient? The thought of it is very disturbing. However, there have been many patients who have experienced "wrong-site, wrong-procedure, wrong-patient errors," (WSPEs.)

Stories of patients who experience such medical errors get a lot of attention. The reason for that is that the consequences of such errors are extremely dangerous, and often permanent. In some cases, such errors can become a matter of life and death. One study of WSPEs estimated that such errors occur in approximately one in every 112,000 surgical procedures, which means that a hospital will only experience such an error once every five to 10 years.

However, the rate of errors may have been higher if the study also included procedures that occur in settings other than a hospital operating room. Other settings include ambulatory surgery and interventional radiology. Surgeons generally mark the spot where they will be operating to avoid wrong-site surgical errors. However, that seemingly simple approach does not always solve the problem.

Certain analyses have identified that the root cause of such errors are communication issues. The concept of surgical time out was introduced to improve the communication in operating rooms. That means that before performing the surgery, the doctors need to discuss important aspects with everyone who will be involved with the procedure in the operating room. However, such surgical errors continue to occur over and over again. It is important for health care practitioners to consider every factor that can potentially lead to a devastating error, which, in turn, can result in serious consequences or a wrongful death. If that happens, the consequences may be far-reaching, including the patient or the patient's family taking legal action.

Source: AHRQ.gov, "Patient safety primers," March 2015

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