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Surgical Errors

According to the American Medical Association, more than 4,000 surgical mistakes are made every year. These surgical errors are often called “never” events, meaning they never should have occurred. These events can include leading surgical instruments behind inside the patient, performing the wrong procedure, operating upon a wrong surgical site, or performing surgery on the wrong patient. While most of the time the injury suffered as a result of these mistakes is temporary, there are occasions when a patient is left with permanent damage. In any case, these surgical errors are unacceptable.

If you or a loved one has suffered from a surgical error caused by a medical professional, please contact us today. Call Burg Simpson’s medical malpractice attorneys at (866) 234-7768 or fill out our FREE case evaluation form now.

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Most adverse hospital events take place during surgery, and the most frequent surgical errors include:

  • Foreign object left behind: This is by far the most common surgical mistake. Surgeons leave behind a sponge, towel, or even an instrument inside a patient nearly 40 times a week in the U.S.

  • Wrong procedure: It might seem hard to believe, but doctors frequently walk into the operating room and perform the wrong procedure on an unsuspecting patient approximately 20 times per week.

  • Wrong site: Doctors regularly operate on the wrong part of the body, as often as 20 times a week.


These mistakes have high costs, and not just financially. Medical errors result in:

  • Death:6 percent of the time

  • Permanent injury:9 percent

  • Temporary injury: 2 percent


Retained Foreign Bodies

A common surgical error is when a piece of medical equipment, such as a tube, sponge, or surgical needle, is left behind in a patient’s body after surgery. When a surgeon or medical professional leaves behind retained surgical items, the patient is at an increased risk of infection, illness, organ damage, and even death. Although medical professionals usually take great care to eliminate the risk of retained foreign bodies, these safety measures can easily go overlooked, especially during emergency situations.

The items most frequently left behind in patients include:

  • Sponges and towels, otherwise known as soft goods

  • Smaller surgical items, such as broken instrument parts, stapler components, guidewires, and catheters

  • Needles

  • Instruments


The failure to remove a surgical instrument or other object after surgery is a serious event. The patient almost always will be forced to undergo another surgery to remove the retained foreign body, which comes with its own set of potential complications.

Wrong Site Surgery

Although wrong site surgery is rare, the results can be disastrous. Any operation can become a wrong site surgery. For some, these errors can be deadly. Even those who survive wrong site surgery can be condemned to suffer a lifetime or poor health or disability. Even for those who do not suffer significant physical harm, they still have to carry around the psychological impact for the rest of their lives.

Common types of wrong site surgery include:

  • Surgery on the wrong vertebral level of the spine

  • Wrong organ removed

  • Wrong limb amputated

  • Surgery on the wrong side of the body

  • Surgery on the correct site/wrong level or area (for example, surgery on the correct hand, but wrong finger)

  • Surgery on the wrong patient, which can result in reversed procedures where each patient receives the wrong surgery


Most surgical errors are preventable. Certain circumstances, such as emergency procedures, which create time pressure or patients having unusual physical characteristics, can contribute to the risk of wrong site surgery. Proper hospital policies and procedures can significantly cut the risks. In fact, most hospitals and surgical centers include safety protocols to prevent these horrific accidents, such as:

  • Time outs: When the staff pauses to confirm medical orders and records

  • Inventory: When the staff takes stock of supplies and instruments used to ensure everything is accounted for

  • Indelible ink: Medical professionals are starting to use this to mark the site of the surgery


Common mistakes and circumstances that lead to wrong site surgery include:

  • Careless pre-surgical planning

  • Incomplete patient assessment

  • Failure to observe “time out” before surgery

  • X-rays read backwards

  • Inadequate site marking

  • More than one surgeon involved in a procedure

  • More than one procedure or surgical site involved in one surgical session

  • Poor communication between surgical team members

  • Time pressures

  • Failure to communicate with the patient or patient’s family before surgery


Surgery on the wrong site or even the wrong patient can have tragic results. Amputation of the wrong limb can mean the loss of both limbs and a lifetime of disability. Removal of the wrong internal organ can change the outcome from improved health to a lifetime or serious health problems and even death. At the very least, victims of wrong site surgery lose faith in health care providers and the system overall, which could cause them to avoid life-saving procedures in the future.

Nerve or Brain Injuries (Post-Surgery)

Although rare, some of the most devastating examples of medical malpractice involve patients who are paralyzed as a result of preventable surgical spinal cord injury, which is a spinal cord injury sustained during surgery. Every year, many individuals suffer life-altering and painful spinal cord injuries as a result of negligent care. These are typically caused by a surgeon’s physical mistake or an error in anesthesia administration.

Spinal cord injuries typically cause severe swelling of the spinal cord from the location of the injury downward. Patients with spinal cord injuries to the upper part of the spinal column suffer from a greater loss of function and mobility, as more of their bodies are affected.

Spinal cord injuries fall into two main categories:

  • Complete (total) spinal cord injuries: No functioning below the level of injury

  • Incomplete (partial) spinal cord injuries: Some feeling and/or movement below the injury site, but impaired


Learn more about spinal cord injuries here.

Contact Our Medical Malpractice Attorneys for Help

If you or a family member has suffered a serious injury because of a surgical error, contact the experienced medical malpractice attorneys at Burg Simpson as soon as possible for assistance with your claim. Call us at (866) 234-7768 or fill out our FREE case evaluation form today.

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