As a New York medical malpractice lawyer who has handled “wrong-site” surgery cases, I wasn’t too surprised to see the news report that estimates that 40 times a week (that’s more than 2,000 times a year!), doctors mistakenly operate on the wrong site.
Huh, the wrong site? Yup, that happens when a doctor is supposed to operate on a RIGHT knee and he operates on the LEFT knee. Or the doctor was supposed to operate on the left eye and he operates on the right. Can you say “Ooooooppppsss”?
But this is NOT funny. The victims of wrong-site surgery suffer all the dangers of surgery (bleeding, infection, scarring, disability, etc.) with none of the benefits of the surgery they were supposed to receive. In fact, many times, the patient is so weakened by the wrong-site surgery that they don’t have the strength to undergo the surgery they were supposed to have.
The Washington Post reported this week that seven years after the Joint Commission, the group that accredits our nation’s hospitals, unveiled mandatory rules to prevent surgery errors, the problem may actually be getting worse!
The good news is that progressive hospitals and doctors are implementing strategies to combat wrong-site surgery, according to the report. Some strategies are simple: require the doctor to physically mark the site of the surgery during the pre-operative preparation; make both doctors and nurses double-check one another as to the proper site of the surgery, and so on.
Medicare is also creating a very strong incentive for doctors and hospitals to ensure that they do not perform surgery at the wrong site by refusing to pay any of the expenses associated with the incorrect surgery. Nothing like hitting someone in the pocketbook to make them pay attention!
And finally, the prospect of an expensive medical malpractice lawsuit is also a strong deterrent to this sloppy mistake that simply shouldn’t occur. In NY and PA, where I routinely practice, it is medical malpractice for a doctor to perform surgery at the wrong site because the standard of care for proper surgical practice always requires the surgeon to confirm the proper site for surgery BEFORE operating.
According to the Washington Post report, based on state data, Joint Commission officials estimate that wrong-site surgery occurs 40 times a week in U.S. hospitals and clinics. In 2010 alone, 93 cases were reported to the accrediting organization, compared with 49 in 2004.
“Attention to the problem comes at a time of increased focus on the broader issue of medical errors, which a recent study found affected one-third of hospital patients,” the report said.
The federal government recently introduced a program aimed at reducing medical mistakes, the Post reported. Medicare requires reporting and does not pay for wrong-site surgery, and many insurers have followed suit, the Post added. Next year, Medicaid will begin a similar policy.
Wrong-site mistakes have multiple causes, experts told the Post: mixing up the left and right sides; operating on a patient who was accidentally given test results belonging to someone else; marking the incorrect vertebrae in spinal surgery; neglecting to mark the site at all. Some occur even though a member of the surgical team thinks something might be wrong but fails to speak up, fearful of slowing the process or challenging the surgeon in charge.
Please remember when you or someone you love is facing surgery – be watchful and ask questions!