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Many still losing their lives to wrong-site surgery

In 2004 the group that grants accreditation to the nation's hospitals, known as the Joint Commission, issued a 'universal protocol' intended to reduce the instances of wrong-site surgery. These best practices, intended to reduce this sort of medical malpractice, included marking the incision site prior to surgery, going through a pre-surgery checklist and taking a time out to make certain everyone in the operating agreement was certain that they were about to perform the correct procedure.

It seemed at the time that the steps needed to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of wrong-site surgery were simple and easy to implement. Unfortunately it appears that seven years later the surgical errors continue unabated. Last year almost twice as many wrong site surgeries were reported than in 2004.

The reported numbers can be deceiving though as only about half of the states require reporting. Many sat that the voluntary nature of the reporting makes is more difficult to address the problem. If all cases were required to be reported regulating agencies could ensure that each event was investigated to learn why it happened and avoid similar surgical errors in the future.

In one instance last year a jury delivered a $20 million dollar verdict against a hospital where the surgeon operated on the wrong side of a 15-year-old boy's brain. The error left the boy severely brain damaged. The hospital however did not disclose the error to the family for more than a year after the surgery.

Wrong site surgery seems like it should be a relatively straightforward form of medical malpractice to fix. Simple checklists and confirmations with patients could virtually end these mistakes. But as long as hospitals and doctors refuse to own up to their mistakes addressing the problem will remain frustratingly complicated.

Source: The Washington Post "The Pain of Wrong Site Surgery" Sandra Boodman, June 20, 2011

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