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Medication errors during surgery: the scope of the problem

If you are going in for surgery, you probably have a lot on your mind. The questions come in bunches: Will the operation be successful? Will insurance pick up the bulk of the cost? How long will the recovery period be? And so on.

It’s good to know that many hospitals have been taking steps to improve safety for surgical patients. These steps include using checklists to monitor proper hand-washing hygiene and guard against wrong-site surgery.

But even when checklists are used, do you still need to be worried about medication errors during surgery? In this post, we will explore that question.

Findings of research study

The anesthesiology department at a respected hospital – Massachusetts General – recently released the results of a study of medication errors during surgery. Researchers observed 277 surgeries at Mass General. It was one of the first studies to actually observe operations rather than relying on self-reported data from doctors.

The researchers found that a medication error of some type or an unintended side effect from a drug occurs in about half of all surgeries. More than one-third of the errors ultimately harmed the patient in some way.

None of the patients in the study died and only three of the errors were classified as life-threatening. And in some cases, the harm consisted of an increased risk of infection or a difference in life-sign readings, not immediate symptoms.

Still, the number of errors or unintended side effects identified in the study is obviously a cause for concern. This is especially true for longer operations, defined as those lasting more than six hours.

Why are there so many drug mistakes during surgery?

Medical professionals have made progress in recent years at preventing prescription errors by switching to electronic prescribing systems.

The reality, however, is that drugs that are administered during surgery don’t have the dispensing protections that other prescriptions do. There is no double-checking by a trained pharmacist or nurse before drugs are given to a patient during surgery.

The operating room isn’t an ER, but events unfold quickly, subject to rapid change in patients’ conditions. As a result, dispensing drugs during surgery carries higher risks than it does outside the operating room. This is particularly true for long surgeries of six hours or more, where multiple drugs are often used.

Be aware of potential problems

The point of this post is not fear-mongering. “Patients don’t need to go into surgery thinking they’re going to have lasting permanent harm every second operation,” said Karen Nanji, the lead author of the study.

But clearly patients need to be aware of potential medication mistakes and unintended side effects. To be sure, that can be difficult to do when you under anesthesia. That is why, as we noted in our August 12 post, it is important to have someone to serve as your patient advocate when you are in a medical facility.

Clearly hospitals need to do a better job of protecting patients during surgery, so that doctors are more aware of potential errors. For example, using bar-code scanning systems could help to prevent the wrong drug from being administered during surgery.

If you are concerned that lasting harm has occurred due to a medication error, we encourage you to discuss your situation with an experienced medical malpractice attorney at our firm.