MDs doing wrong-site surgery: Why is it still happening?


In July 2021, University Hospitals, in Cleveland, announced that its staff had transplanted a kidney into the wrong patient. Although the patient who received the kidney was recovering well, the patient who was supposed to have received the kidney was skipped over. As a result of the error, two employees were placed on administrative leave and the incident was being investigated, the hospital announced.

In April 2020, an interventional radiologist at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, in Boca Raton, Fla., was sued for allegedly placing a stent into the wrong kidney of an 80-year-old patient. Using fluoroscopic guidance, the doctor removed an old stent from the right side but incorrectly replaced it with a new stent on the left side, according to an interview conducted by this news organization with the patient’s lawyers at Searcy Law, in West Palm Beach.

Wrong-site surgery -- surgery performed on the wrong patient, the wrong body part, or the wrong side of the body -- is a rare but distressing event and garners much attention when it happens. “The problem is that it is so rare that doctors don’t focus on it,” says Mary R. Kwaan, MD, a colorectal surgeon at UCLA Medical Center, Los Angeles.

A 2006 study in which Kwaan was the lead author concluded that there was one wrong-site surgery for every 112,994 surgeries. Those mistakes can add up. A 2006 study estimated that 25 to 52 wrong-site surgeries were performed each week in the United States.

“Many surgeons don’t think it can happen to them, so they don’t take extra precautions,” says David Mayer, MD, executive director of the MedStar Institute for Quality and Safety, in Washington, DC. “When they make a wrong-site error, usually the first thing they say is, ‘I never thought this would happen to me,’ ” he says.

Wrong-site surgeries are considered sentinel events -- the worst kinds of medical errors. The Sullivan Group, a patient safety consultancy based in Colorado, reports that in 2013, 2.7% of patients who were involved in wrong-site surgeries died and 41% experienced some type of permanent injury. The mean malpractice payment was $127,000.

Some malpractice payments are much higher. In 2013, a Maryland ob.gyn paid a $1.42 million malpractice award for removing the wrong ovary from a woman in 2009. In 2017, a Pennsylvania urologist paid $870,000 for removing the wrong testicle from a man in 2013.

Wrong-site surgery often involves experienced surgeons

One might think that wrong-site surgeries usually involve younger or less-experienced surgeons, but that’s not the case; two thirds of the surgeons who perform wrong-site surgeries are in their 40s and 50s, compared with fewer than 25% younger than 40.

In a rather chilling statistic, in a 2013 survey, 12.4% of doctors who were involved in sentinel events in general had claims for more than one event.

These errors are more common in certain specialties. In a study reported in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Spine, 25% of orthopedic surgeons reported performing at least one wrong-site surgery during their career.

Within orthopedics, spine surgery is ground zero for wrong-site surgery. “Finding the site in spine surgery can be more difficult than in common left-right orthopedic procedures,” says Joseph A. Bosco III, a New York City orthopedist.

A 2007 study found that 25% of neurosurgeons had performed wrong-site surgeries. In Missouri in 2013, for example, a 53-year-old patient who was scheduled to undergo a left-sided craniotomy bypass allegedly underwent a right-sided craniotomy and was unable to speak after surgery.

Wrong-site surgeries are also performed by general surgeons, urologists, cardiologists, otolaryngologists, and ophthalmologists. A 2021 lawsuit accused a Tampa urologist of removing the patient’s wrong testicle. And a 2019 lawsuit accused a Chicago ophthalmologist of operating on the wrong eye to remove a cyst.


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