Common surgical mistakes and how often they occur

By Jason Brady

Woman going under anaesthetic

Surgery can often involve complex and delicate medical procedures that require precision, skill, and the utmost attention to detail. However, despite the best efforts of healthcare professionals, surgical errors can occur, leading to serious consequences for patients.

How often do surgical errors occur?

Whilst surgical errors are relatively rare, according to a study of NHS England ‘never events’ between 2012 and 2020, there were approximately 800 such preventable surgical mistakes.

NHS England defines ‘Never Events’ as ‘patient safety incidents that are wholly preventable where guidance or safety recommendations that provide strong systemic protective barriers are available at a national level and have been adopted by healthcare providers.’

Never events in the NHS 2022/23 – Latest figures released

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How to avoid mistakes in surgery

Effective communication: Communication is key in any surgical team. Clear and concise communication among team members, including surgeons, anesthesiologists, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, is crucial to prevent misunderstandings and errors. Utilising standardised protocols and checklists can help ensure that all necessary steps are taken before, during, and after surgery.

Comprehensive preoperative planning: Thorough preoperative planning is essential for a successful surgical outcome. This includes a detailed review of the patient’s medical history, conducting necessary tests and imaging, and ensuring that the surgical team is fully informed and prepared for the procedure.

Adequate training and skill development: Surgeons and healthcare professionals must undergo extensive training and continuous professional development to stay updated with the latest advancements in surgical techniques and safety measures. This helps minimise the chances of errors and ensures that patients receive the highest standard of care.

Utilising technology: The integration of technology in surgery has revolutionised the field and significantly reduced the risk of errors. Advanced imaging techniques, robotic-assisted surgery, and computer-assisted navigation systems can now aid surgeons in performing procedures with greater precision and accuracy.

Surgical mistake statistics

Statistics released by NHS England indicate that between 1 April 2022 and 31 March 2023, there were 169 instances of surgery being conducted at the wrong site on a patient’s body. This included:

  • 24 instances of incorrect skin lesions being removed.
  • Eight instances of injections being administered into the wrong eye.
  • Four instances of botulinum injection being administered to the wrong site.

Figures released by NHS Resolution indicate that between the financial years 2010/11 and 2019/2020:

  • There was a grand total of 10,027 claims made against the NHS for surgery-related mistakes.
  • This resulted in a total compensatory payout of £841,953,065 to the affected parties.
  • There were 3,293 claims that were eventually closed without damages being paid.
  • In 2022/23, there were 704 claims made for general surgery mistakes.

Blackwater Law medical negligence solicitors successfully represented Mr P in a compensation claim for surgical negligence against Barking, Havering & Redbridge University Hospitals Trust.

surgeon with blue gloves holding surgical scissors

What you can do if you have suffered from a surgical error

If you believe you have suffered from a surgical error, it is crucial to take the following steps:

  • Seek medical attention: If you are experiencing complications or have concerns about the outcome of your surgery, contact your healthcare provider immediately. They can assess your condition, provide necessary treatment, and address any potential errors.
  • Document everything: Keep detailed records of your medical history, symptoms, and any conversations or interactions related to the surgical error. This documentation will be valuable if you decide to pursue a legal claim or seek compensation.
  • Consult a medical negligence solicitor: Contact a qualified surgical negligence specialist to discuss your case. They can help you navigate the legal process, gather evidence, and determine if you have a viable claim for medical negligence.
  • Report the incident: Inform the relevant healthcare authorities about the surgical error. This could include filing a formal complaint with the hospital or reporting the incident to regulatory bodies responsible for overseeing medical professionals.

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