Surgery

Protecting yourself from surgical mistakes

Manny Alvarez

Today, you can undergo many different medical procedures and surgeries out of necessity or even convenience. While doctors and surgeons have high training and take great care to avoid mistakes, they’re not infallible. As the patient, you can get involved in your medical care, protecting yourself from hospital and surgical mistakes.

According to one 2016 study by the Johns Hopkins patient safety experts, hospital and medical errors account for as many as 250,000 deaths each year. Most of these don’t occur because doctors lack ability and insight but because of poorly coordinated care, underuse of safety nets, and variation in practices by different doctors.  

A Case of Wrong-Site Surgery

Though rare, some of the surgical mistakes that occur include wrong-site surgery. Surgeons might go through several surgeries every day, meaning that individual cases and details can easily run together.

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Every once in a while, a surgeon will actually operate on the wrong person or body part. This situation usually gets disastrous, even if it doesn’t end in accidental death.

In 2013, one man had such misfortune when he went in for surgical removal of his testicle. Steven Haines decided to check into prolonged pain in his right testicle that he had suffered from for over a decade.

When Dr. V. Spencer Long took an ultrasound, he found that the testicle had atrophied after an injury, and the doctor scheduled surgery. However, during surgery, the doctor accidentally removed Haines’s healthy testicle instead.

Several years later, Haines received some return for his pain when a Pennsylvania jury awarded him over $800,000 for Dr. Long’s mistake. Haines might need lifelong testosterone treatment if he ever decides to undergo the correct surgery prescribed four years ago.

Scary medical mistakes like these can cause great emotional trauma for patients and make others lose faith in the medical system. Rest assured that these wrong-site surgery cases are few and far between.

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Steps for Protection

No matter the level of skill of the hospital or doctor, you as the patient can and should get involved. In fact, several studies, including one launched by the Massachusetts General Hospital, are working to get doctors and patients together on medical decisions.

So far, researchers have found that these patients tend to receive better, more informed treatment, need fewer invasive procedures, and have higher satisfaction.

If nothing else, getting involved can protect you from a medical or surgical mistake. Here are a few steps you can take to get involved in your medical care.

1. Ask plenty of questions.

You should completely understand the options and risks behind any medicine or procedure. As a patient, you have that right.

2. Detail everything.

Tell your doctor every problem related to your health concern along with any current over-the-counter and prescription medicines and supplements. Even if you don’t think a detail has importance, it just might.

3. If possible, get to know the surgeon.

The doctor treating you should be able to talk through your condition or surgery with you personally. Not only will this ease your mind, it will help him get to know your specific case. In addition, educate the hospital staff about yourself and your condition at every opportunity.

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4. Research the procedure.

If you and your doctor are looking into surgery, do your own research about it. Look into alternatives. You will greatly decrease your chances of a surgical mistake if you can opt for a less invasive alternative.

5. Find a specialist.

If you must go through surgery, look for a specialist to perform it. A doctor who performs the exact type of procedure you need every day will likely not make as many mistakes during surgery.

6. Highlight the surgery site yourself.

Before you go into surgery, ask the doctor and/or medical staff if you can highlight the surgery site. You should at least have involvement in reminding the doctor where to mark the surgery site.

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7. Have a friend with you.

For any major medical diagnosis, have a friend or family member there who knows the situation. They can speak up for you if they have a question or concern that you might have missed.

You can never ask too many questions or take too many precautions with your medical care. Doctors have high skill and knowledge, but they can make mistakes. With patient involvement, doctors and medical staff can more readily target the patient’s care to the underlying problem. The patient will also act as another accountability marker, helping doctors make fewer mistakes, especially surgical mistakes.

This article first appeared on AskDrManny.com. 

Dr. Manny Alvarez serves as Fox News Channel's senior managing health editor. He also serves as chairman of the department of obstetrics/gynecology and reproductive science at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey. For more information on Dr. Manny's work, visit AskDrManny.com.