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'Never events' still frequent, medical malpractice research says

Many New Yorkers have heard stories of terrible mistakes being made during surgery. Examples include doctors operating on the wrong patient or the wrong body part; other stories detail surgical sponges or other equipment being left inside patients. These may sound like urban legends, but for the people who have suffered these mistakes, they are very real.

The medical community often refers to these mistakes as "never events" --not because they never happen, but because there's no reason for them to happen. Yet recent research shows that they occur frequently, resulting in medical malpractice lawsuits to compensate patients for the problems they experience after the surgical error.

Researchers who pored through the National Practitioner Data Bank, which tracks medical malpractice claims, found nearly 10,000 cases of these entirely preventable events over the past two decades. The actual number of such incidents could be much higher, since many cases are never reported. If a patient never experiences complications from having a foreign object left inside them, he or she may not even be aware that it happened. Even those who are well aware of a medical mistake may not file a malpractice claim.

Although the occurrence of such events appears to be on the decline, physicians acknowledge that even one incident is too many because it's entirely preventable. Many hospitals have taken extra steps to prevent surgical errors, such as doing a count of all sponges, towels and instruments before and after surgery. To avoid wrong-site surgery, some hospital personnel are required to label the affected body part with indelible ink.

Still, even the best, most experienced surgeons are human and therefore capable of making mistakes. Patients who fall victim to these errors have every right to rectify them with a medical malpractice claim. A civil lawsuit can not only provide the compensation needed to recover from a "never event," but improve the hospital's procedures so that the same mistake doesn't happen to someone else.

Source: ABC News, "Surgeons Still Make Preventable Mistakes," Lauren Browne, Dec. 20, 2012

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