Although they rarely occur, wrong-site surgeries are incredibly stressful and damaging events. Wrong-site surgeries include those performed on the wrong body part, the wrong side of the body, or on the wrong patient. According to UCLA Medical Center colorectal surgeon Mary R. Kwaan, MD, the rarity of wrong-site surgeries leads to physicians not focusing on them. This is a grave misjudgment, given that rare surgical errors can certainly add up. According to a 2006 study, approximately 25 to 52 wrong-site surgeries occur weekly in the United States. Certain specialists are more prone to finding themselves involved in wrong-site surgery malpractice suits than others. Spine surgery leaves physicians particularly vulnerable to wrong-site errors. For example, a 2007 study found that one out of four neurosurgeons performed wrong-site surgeries.

According to Maryland-based law firm Miller & Zois, almost 50% of medical malpractice suits pertain to surgical malpractice. Surgical errors are costly for both patients and physicians. Miller & Zois cite an Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality study that found that one in 10 patients who died during the 3-month period following surgery died due to surgical errors. The law firm also notes The Institute of Medicine’s (IOMs) estimate of surgical deaths in the US, which is around 7,000 per year. Miller & Zois estimate that for patients initiating malpractice suits, three out of every four end up receiving money. Though the mean settlement payout for wrong-site surgery malpractice suits in the US is around $280,000, wrong-site errors can cost physicians even more. In 2013, a patient went into cardiac arrest and died during open heart surgery. Her estate’s malpractice suit, which alleged that the physician’s improper handling of pacing wires mid-surgery resulted in the patient’s death, led to a jury to award the estate $5,505,000.

Yet, wrong-site surgical errors are not strictly the surgeon’s fault. For instance, staff members may enter data incorrectly when scheduling surgery. Other errors may occur when radiologists or pathologists inaccurately write reports. Environmental or personal distractions can cause medical professionals to confuse left and right, which can begin a slippery slope down to wrong-site surgery. According to Roseville, California-based anesthesiologist Samuel C. Seiden, MD, operating room (OR) personnel may confuse right and left while turning a patient from supine to prone position. Operative site markings can also present OR confusion, as they can be easily rubbed off during surgical prep. Surgical draping can result in confusion as well, making it more challenging to tell left from right. For surgeons who are working from memory, they may be more likely to mix up patient cases and perform wrong-site surgery.

Wrong-site surgery yields costly outcomes, leaving patients battling physical, mental, and emotional consequences. In the worst-case scenarios, fatalities occur. Surgeons face costly outcomes both financially and professionally, as the stain of a wrong-site surgery malpractice suit will linger. Medical professionals are best served by not overlooking the possibility of surgical errors. This will help them to better check and prepare for errors prior to surgery.