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What you can do before an operation to avoid surgical errors

There is no argument from those in health care that there are still problems to overcome to make surgery safer for patients. Despite years of effort to raise awareness and reduce instances of so-called “never events,” one analysis in 2012 estimated that preventable surgical errors result in more than 4,000 malpractice claims every year.

The implications of that data, compiled by Johns Hopkins University researchers, are staggering. They say that in some 10,000 never-event cases reviewed over a 20-year time frame, more than 6 percent of the patients died. Nearly 33 percent of patients suffered permanent injury. Some 60 percent suffered temporary injuries. And payouts for malpractice claims totaled $1.3 billion.

There is no way to ensure that every surgical procedure proposed for an Oregon patient will result in the optimal outcome. The health of the patient going into the operation alone can increase the risk of complications developing. But when errors do occur and they are the result of bad management of operating room practices, accountability is called for.

Much of the onus for improving surgical safety is on the hospitals and the doctors and nurses on staff. But experts say there are things that patients can do to increase the odds of a positive outcome, as well. These include:

  • Choosing the hospital, if possible. There might not be a choice in some locations, but if one exists, see if you can have the procedure done at the facility with the greatest experience with your type of operation.
  • Choosing the surgeon. The more experience the doctor has with the operation proposed for you, the better. If you feel uncomfortable about interviewing the surgeon yourself, talk to your primary care provider.
  • Get the operation in the right setting. A lot of procedures are done on an outpatient basis, meaning you go home the same day. Not all of them should be. Ask whether an inpatient or outpatient setting is what is typical for your procedure.
  • Have your surgeon mark the spot. Operating on the wrong body part is one of those things that should never happen. It still does. Many hospitals require marking the spot with a pen as part of preoperative processes, but don’t be afraid to insist on it with your surgeon.

In the end, there is no better advocate for your safety than you are.