What Are the Most Common Surgical Errors?

What Are the Most Common Surgical Errors?

When you go in for surgery, you expect the surgeon, hospital, and staff to take every measure to keep you safe. Although all surgeries, no matter how minor, carry inherent risks, surgeons should perform procedures free of preventable errors.

Unfortunately, while most doctors can prevent surgical errors, they still happen frequently and are one of the leading causes of unnecessary hospital deaths and subsequent medical malpractice claims.

If you are the victim of a surgical error, you may receive financial compensation for your emotional pain, suffering, and monetary losses.

Experienced medical malpractice lawyers understand the effects a surgical error can have on your life and are ready to fight for the compensation you need and deserve.

What Is a Surgical Error?

When a patient signs a consent form indicating they understand the potential risks involved in surgery, they never agree to risks associated with the possibility of a deviation from an accepted standard of professional medical care.

Surgical errors occur during a surgical procedure due to a failure to abide by proper surgical or medical protocols. These errors may not necessarily worsen your immediate condition or be detected for a long time and often occur due to inadequate training and miscommunication.

What Causes Surgical Errors?

Tired medical professional resting in hospital corridor

There are numerous reasons why surgical errors occur, with some of the most common cases due to preventable behaviors. When surgeons perform medical procedures, they must always avoid errors that can injure patients.

Furthermore, surgeons and medical professionals should have a high level of skill and extensive training in the relevant types of surgical tasks to operate. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and even slight oversights in surgical situations can result in devastating consequences.

While no two surgical errors are alike, some common reasons surgeons and other medical professionals may commit surgical errors include:

Impairment by drugs or alcohol

Since surgeries involve complex maneuvers and careful movements, even if a surgeon operates with the utmost care, surgical errors can happen. When a surgeon or medical professional performs a surgical procedure under the influence of drugs or alcohol, they fail to provide their patients with an appropriate standard of care and risk causing severe harm. Seek legal guidance as soon as possible if you believe a doctor treated you under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Poor communication 

Surgeons and their staff must communicate effectively with one another despite the high-stress work environment. Any miscommunication between the surgeon and their surgical staff can lead to surgical errors. A lot can go wrong without clear communication before and during the surgical procedure. For example, poor communication can cause the surgeon to mark the wrong site for surgery or complete surgery on the wrong patient altogether.


Surgeons and other medical professionals often put in grueling hours, and when exhaustion begins to affect their ability to perform surgery effectively, it can lead to preventable surgical errors. In fact, the impairments experienced by overly fatigued people are similar to those experienced intoxicated people.

Incompetence or lack of experience

A surgeon or medical professional who has not received proper training or experience concerning the specific surgery or medical procedure they’re performing risks making a grave mistake and should abstain from doing so. Additional contributing factors that may result in surgical errors include inadequate supervision or monitoring.

Poor or insufficient planning 

Surgeons and their staff must account for all key elements before proceeding with something as serious as a surgery. When surgeons or other medical professionals don't take these extra precautions before the operation, they risk committing serious yet preventable surgical errors.

Using the wrong surgical equipment 

Medical professional in scrubs and stethoscope facing a critical situation

Whether this occurs due to a lack of training or a miscommunication that resulted in the patient being in the wrong room, using the wrong surgical equipment can result in a larger incision, increase a patient's risk of infection, and cause more significant scarring or nerve damage.

Additionally, using broken, damaged, or defective medical equipment can cause injuries and severe complications, leading to devastating results for the patient.

Despite the intense and complicated nature of surgery, you should not suffer because of a surgeon's negligence. If you suffered a preventable medical complication during surgery, an experienced medical malpractice attorney can analyze your claim for potential negligence and determine if you have a case.

The Most Common Surgical Errors and How They Occur 

Surgery is stressful enough, and whether you’re having an emergency or are going in for surgery scheduled for a few weeks, you rely on the surgical team and their staff to perform the operation free of errors.

Simple procedures can result in an error and lead to disastrous and life-long complications for the patient.

The following are examples of the most common surgical errors:

Leaving a foreign object in the patient's body 

Radiograph showing foreign objects resembling a key within the heart region

One of the more common surgical errors is leaving a foreign object, such as scalpels, surgical clamps, pads, retractors, drains, or gauze, in a patient's body. A surgeon may leave a foreign object in a patient's body if they fail to closely look inside the cavity or keep count of all surgical sponges used and recovered, for instance.

Not only can leaving a foreign object in the patient’s body cause significant pain and discomfort, but it can also lead to a life-threatening infection.

When a surgeon leaves surgical tools in a patient, they often require additional surgery to remove the object. If this happens, the surgeon or medical professional must identify the potential problem, order diagnostic tests, and remove the instrument as soon as possible. The longer a tool is left in a patient, the greater the possibility of it causing harm.

Additionally, in some cases, surgical instruments can migrate through the body and cause internal pain and destruction.

Some additional symptoms of retained surgical instruments a patient may experience include:

  • Abdominal tumors 
  • Intestinal obstruction 
  • Damage to organs
  • Bleeding 
  • Inflammation 
  • Abscess 

While this may be one of the most common surgical errors, it is also one of the most easily preventable. To avoid leaving a foreign object in a patient's body, surgeons and their staff should go through a materials-used checklist following a surgery's completion.

Performing the wrong surgery 

Surgeons may perform the wrong surgery on a patient because of administrative mistakes, communication blunders, or even scheduling errors. Patients who go under anesthesia for a specific operation expect to wake up receiving the appropriate medical treatment.

However, when someone receives the wrong surgery, they risk experiencing dangerous complications from not getting the needed surgery. After a surgical error, an attorney can evaluate your situation and determine if you should pursue compensation.

Wrong-site surgery 

"Wrong site" surgeries occur when a surgeon performs a procedure on the wrong part of a patient's body. The most common reasons surgeries on the wrong side of the body may occur are because the surgeon and surgical team rushed through the procedure, miscommunicated, or did not take the necessary steps to prep the correct area of the body.

Whether operating on the right side of the body when the cancerous lesion was on the left or a surgeon operating on the right leg when the fracture was on the left, these costly errors often end in fatal consequences. If you suffered from preventable mistakes, Find a right personal injury attorney to discuss the details of your case.

Operating on the wrong body part 

There are times when the surgical staff misinforms the surgeon about the reasons for the surgery. While this may seem unlikely, this mistake is common, life-threatening, and often irreversible. This surgical error often occurs when surgeons and their staff fail to take the proper steps to ensure the operation happens at the correct location on the body. These mistakes can involve amputation on the wrong limb and removing or replacing the wrong organ in a patient.

Unnecessary injury to organs or body parts 

When performed properly, surgical procedures involve delicately operating on a diseased or injured body part. Unfortunately, when otherwise healthy organs or body parts are punctured, nicked, or cut, it can lead to severe injuries and require potential additional surgeries to repair the damage.

The most common internal injury is hemorrhaging.

Examples of other surgical eros that can lead to serious internal injuries include:

  • Nicking a vein, artery, or blood vessel
  • Damaging the surrounding nerves around the surgical sites
  • Accidentally cutting muscles, tendons, ligaments, and other soft tissue outside of the surgical site
  • Perforating the bowel, colon, or lacerating the bladder
  • Broken or fractured bones

When a surgeon operates on a patient without the required skill or attention to detail, they risk causing severe damage to internal organs and other body parts. By acting quickly, a surgeon may repair the damage, but continued negligence can lead to serious injury or even death.

Anesthesia Errors 

Mishandling anesthesia occurs frequently and can cause catastrophic harm to the patient. With too little anesthesia, a patient can wake up during surgery, causing a horrifying experience and putting them at further risk of injury.

In cases where an anesthesiologist administers too much anesthesia, a patient may suffer from a lack of oxygen, brain damage, or even wrongful death. Without getting a full patient history ahead of time, an anesthesiologist may administer a drug that the patient is allergic to, causing a lethal and potentially fatal interaction.

Operating on the Wrong Patient 

When patients enter the operating room, they trust that the surgeon and staff know who they are operating on and what procedure to perform.

Unfortunately, performing the wrong surgery on the wrong patient is a serious mistake that happens when there is poor hospital protocol in place, a catastrophic breakdown of communication that causes an accidental mixup of medical records, or a lack of preoperative verification. These errors can lead to the removal of healthy organs, amputations, or leave the patient with disfiguring injuries.

Permanent Nerve Damage 

There are millions of nerves in the body, and depending on where that nerve is, all it takes is a minor flick of the wrist or a tremor to accidentally damage one of these nerves and leave the patient with a long-term disability. Some common signs of nerve damage include pain, numbness, loss of strength, and mobility.

Although doctors cannot avoid all nerve damage, no one should have to suffer preventable injuries caused by a negligent surgeon or other medical professional.

Even if all aspects of the surgery go according to plan, surgeons and their staff must monitor patients for signs of infection post-surgery. A postoperative infection can lead to a medical malpractice claim if you can prove that a medical professional or their staff failed to implement the proper protocols for preventing infections or unreasonably delayed diagnosis and treatment of the infection.

If you were the victim of a surgical error, consult a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible. Your lawyer can assess the severity of the mistake and advise you on the best course of action to get full and fair compensation in your case.

An Experienced Medical Malpractice Attorney is Here to Help 

William B Kilduff
William B. Kilduff Medical Malpractice Attorney

In personal injury law, medical malpractice cases are among the most complicated. For this reason, always work with a medical malpractice attorney who has the necessary experience and skill to determine the cause of your injury, identify all liable parties, and fight for the compensation you need while you work on your physical recovery.

After a surgical error, acting quickly can protect your rights and best interests. Contact law firms near you for a consultation with a trusted personal injury attorney. They are ready to assess the merits of your claim and explain your legal rights and options.

William B. Kilduff


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