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What Are the Most Common Surgical Errors in the Operating Room?

August 24, 2023

When you go into the operating room for surgery, you expect everything to go according to plan. You expect your surgeon to perform your procedure with care and precision, and you expect the other medical professionals in the room to help make sure that you come out safely on the other side. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. 

Each year, there are more than 4,000 surgical errors in the United States. While errors “appear to be more common before and after the surgical procedure . . . than . . . in the operating room,” errors in the operating room are still common enough to be cause for concern. Generally speaking, these errors should not happen. With today’s medical knowledge and technology, surgeons have the information and tools they need to perform patients’ procedures safely. Yet, these errors do happen, and in many cases they have life-altering or life-threatening consequences. 

7 Common Surgical Errors in the Operating Room

What kinds of surgical errors happen in the emergency room? Here are seven of the most common examples: 

1. Perforation or Laceration of Internal Organs 

When operating in close proximity to a patient’s internal organs, surgeons may accidentally damage patients’ organs during their procedures. A perforation occurs when a surgical scalpel or other tool nicks a patient’s bowel, allowing bacteria from inside of the bowel to spill into the body cavity. Lacerations involve damage to other internal organs. Perforations and lacerations present several risks, from the risk of infections and sepsis to the risk of internal bleeding and organ failure. 

2. Nerve Damage

Nerve damage during surgery is a risk for patients as well. Even a split-second loss of concentration or a minor slip of the scalpel can result in damage to the nerves surrounding the surgical area. Other errors, such as causing excessive scarring or damaging the myelin sheath, can also lead to nerve damage following patients’ procedures. While some forms of nerve damage can be repaired, nerve damage from mistakes in the operating room will be permanent in many cases. 

3. Wrong Surgery (or Wrong-Site Surgery)

In some cases, surgeons will perform the wrong surgical procedure in the operating room. While this is often a result of administration errors outside of the operating room, in many cases there will be signs that surgeons can—and should—spot before they start operating. Even if the procedure goes smoothly, an unnecessary surgery can have lasting consequences; and, if a patient needs emergency surgery, failure to perform the correct procedure could have severe consequences as well. 

Wrong-site surgeries are also common. A wrong-site surgery involves performing the correct procedure in the wrong location. The most common form of wrong-site surgery is performing a procedure on the wrong side of a patient’s body. 

4. Surgical Implant and Transplant Errors

When performing implant and transplant procedures, surgeons must meticulously implant the patient’s replacement device or transplanted organ. Here, too, even minor mistakes can have devastating consequences. From rushing the process to not knowing all of the necessary steps, various issues can lead to patient harm during these complex (and often high-risk) surgeries. 

5. Failure to Monitor the Patient’s Condition

During surgery, the patient’s condition must be carefully monitored. A drop in heart rate, signs that a patient’s anesthesia is wearing off, and other signs of distress should all be addressed immediately. If the medical professionals in the operating room are not monitoring the patient’s condition, this can also lead to unnecessary complications and potentially life-threatening conditions. 

6. Robotic Surgery Errors 

While robotic surgery is supposed to decrease the risk of surgical errors, studies have shown that “[r]obotic surgery results in an increase in accidental hemorrhage caused by lacerations and injury to surrounding tissues.” Even if a surgical error is due to a robotic failure, the patient (or the patient’s family) may have a claim for medical malpractice

7. Leaving Surgical Tools or Supplies in the Body

Another common surgical error in the operating room is leaving surgical tools or supplies in the patient’s body. Scalpels, forceps, gauze, and other items all can be—and have been—left behind. Not only can having a foreign object in the body be incredibly dangerous, but it necessitates another surgery (with the risk of additional errors in the operating room) as well. 

Contact the Medical Malpractice Lawyers at Coplan + Crane

If you or a loved one has experienced a surgical error in the emergency room, you may be entitled to financial compensation for medical malpractice. With offices in Chicago and Oak Park, we represent patients and families in medical malpractice cases throughout Illinois. For a FREE, no-obligation consultation, call (708) 358-8080 or send us a message online today. We serve clients throughout Illinois, including Chicago, Oak Park, Rockford, and other areas.