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Despite surgical checklists, preventable errors persist

On Behalf of | Aug 28, 2013 | Surgical Errors

Few consumers and hospital patients in New Jersey or elsewhere across the country would credit the medical industry with a fool-proof safety standard and performance record. Most people know — anecdotally, through diverse media reports and, perhaps, from their own personal experience — that medical mistakes occur in hospitals, and with regularity.

Those mistakes are generally assumed to be less frequently visited on patients undergoing surgeries, though, given the safety checklists, so-called “timeouts” now common in operating theaters and constant guarding against preventable surgical errors.

Still, mistakes in surgery occur far too often, even concerning “never events” most closely associated with things like wrong-side and wrong-organ procedures.

One surgeon who is a regular media contributor on medical-related topics notes that, sadly, such errors persist despite the safeguards against them.

A central would-be deterrent to surgical mistakes is the operating room checklist that has become commonplace among surgical teams across the United States and globally. Its basic premise: that rigid adherence to its enumerated best practices before, during and following surgery serves as a systematic check against errors that might otherwise occur.

All indications are that well-considered checklists do accomplish that purpose. Still, errors persist.


Evidence that has emerged from various reports and studies indicates that, foremost, all checklists are not equal. Some lack vital information. Others contain inaccurate information.

Human error, too, is often cited as a reason explaining why even accurate and comprehensive checklists fail. Following a wrong-leg surgery in a Florida hospital, a facility spokesperson stated that “the system broke down because of the human element.” In a Medscape report commenting on a checklist study concerning a Texas hospital, one interviewee noted that surgeons simply did not “buy in” to concepts like checklists and timeouts.

That is unfortunate, given the data showing that hospital error and surgical negligence rates are materially improved when surgical teams rigidly follow safety checklists and protocols during operations.

Source: General Surgery News, “Wrong-site surgery and checklist (non)compliance,” Aug. 19, 2013

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