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What are Surgical Never Events?


Under medical malpractice laws, physicians, nurses, and health care providers are obligated to provide patients with a reasonable standard of care. When they provide substandard care and patients suffer harm as a result, medical professionals can be held legally accountable for their failures and liable for victims’ damages. Substandard care can occur in many ways, and it can often be difficult to prove if a physician could or should have prevented injury. In some cases, however, the level of care is so egregiously substandard that it amounts to what is called a never event.

A never event is a term used to describe medical mistakes that any reasonable health care provider can agree should never happen. These mistakes are often inexcusable, largely preventable, and can have serious even fatal consequences on a patient’s health and well-being.

Because never events are such a prominent concern for hospitals and regulators, there is ample data on the various types of never event that occur across the country each year. Unfortunately, some studies indicate that never events involving surgical procedures, which can be among the most dangerous to patients, happen roughly 4,000 times each year in the U.S.

Common examples of surgical never events include:

  • Retained foreign bodies – These never events involve surgical items that have been left in a patient’s body after a surgical procedure, which can increase risks of infection and require additional surgeries to correct. Items commonly involved include surgical tools such as scalpels, medical sponges, and gauze. According to one 2012 study, there are as many as 1,500 reported retained foreign item cases in the U.S. per year.
  • Wrong site surgery – Wrong site never events are those in which medical care providers perform invasive procedures on an incorrect part of the body. This may occur when physicians perform surgery on the wrong side of the body, when incisions are made in the wrong location, and when staff fail to properly collect and organize information about patients and procedures.
  • Wrong patient surgery – Although it’s difficult to imagine that health care providers would perform an operation on the wrong patient, it can and does happen. Often, it is the result of errors, misidentification, and a lack of organization by staff, insurers, or by other health care providers prior to surgery. Still, surgical staff have a responsibility to ensure they are performing the correct surgery on any patient that enters the surgical room. In one notable case in October 2016, a Massachusetts surgeon was alleged to have removed a kidney from the wrong patient.
  • Wrong procedure surgery – A procedure that is not required or not consistent with a patient’s documented consent can be considered a wrong procedure never event. Like wrong site and wrong patient never events, wrong procedures typically result from miscommunication and administrative errors.

Surgical never events are named “never” events for a reason – they are simply inexcusable. This is why state and federal governments heavily regulate health care providers that perform surgical procedures and why hospitals often have protocol staff must follow in order to avoid the preventable mistakes. All parties involved in the care of the patient must follow these standards.

For the victims and families who suffer as a result of medical malpractice and never events, fortunately, there are legal pathways available to hold wrongdoer’s accountable and recover financial compensation. Our Austin medical malpractice attorneys at the Law Offices of Vic Feazell, P.C. are available to speak with patients who believe they were victims of never events or other medical errors and explain their right to compensation. If you would like to discuss a case with a member of our team, contact us for a free consultation.