Report: Surgical Errors Are Often Hidden from Patients

Report: Surgical Errors Are Often Hidden from Patients

Imagine this — you undergo a common medical procedure. Upon waking, the surgeon says “everything went well.”

Great, right?

Well, perhaps not. According to a recent survey from The JAMA Network, your surgeon might be hiding something. So, what’s really going on behind the scenes?

A Frightening Culture of Silence in the Medical Community

The survey seeks to understand the complexity of medical accountability and honesty related to malpractice. Believe it or not, there are a good number of surgeons out there who will neglect to notify a patient of any wrongdoing or misstep. This type of malpractice can occur for a few different reasons.

Additionally, there is a pervasive culture of silence in the medical community. Physicians are often too afraid to speak up about any wrongdoings they witness for fear of losing their job or referrals. However, at the end of the day, the patient is the one who must deal with the repercussions. In this case, as in others, silence is deadly, and only results in the victim being further victimized.

Anonymous Survey: Surgeons Reveal the Truth

Of the 62 surgeons who completed the anonymous survey, most fared well in certain categories concerning the after effects of medical errors, such as “expressing concern for the patient’s welfare” (95 percent) and “discussing steps needed to treat any subsequent problem” (98 percent).

However, the results for other categories were not nearly as positive. Only 55 percent of surgeons “apologized to patients” or “discussed whether the event was preventable.”

Wait a minute — nearly half of those surveyed did not even apologize? Nearly half of those surveyed did not explain whether or not the mistake was avoidable?

Communication: Not Just a Skill, but a Necessity

Make no mistake: these figures are frightening, and they are perhaps reflective of a desire to avoid malpractice lawsuits, justice, and accountability.

Obviously, the medical community does not foster a climate of honesty and respect when it comes to medical error. But why is this? Answering this question is a necessary component to understanding the issue at hand.

Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of health policy & management, medicine, and surgery at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, argues that there is “a science” to effective communication within a medical practice. For Dr. Wu, the study makes it clear that “the consequences of not having good communication skills in what's often a very messy series of events can result in patient harm."

In short, the medical community must find a way to foster transparency.

Truth: Half of All Surgeries Have “Errors”

Did you know that errors occur during nearly half of all operations? When one considers the fact that medical errors are currently the 3rd leading cause of death, it becomes very clear that something is seriously wrong with our medical system.

Physicians should be worried about communicating, cataloging, and addressing these figures — not about covering them up.

Birth injuries, such as cerebral palsy and Erb’s palsy, are – all too unfortunately – common ailments caused by doctor error. Sometimes, since there are so many variables involved in a delivery, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly at what point malpractice occurred. Was labor prolonged unnecessarily? Was the baby manipulated in such a way that caused damage?

It goes without saying, but these common injuries should be anything but common.

Why No Apology?

In some instances, however, the moment of damage is easily discernible. Consider the case of Emma Portogallo’s son, Xavier, who was delivered with forceps. During the delivery, the obstetrician pulled so hard on the baby that Emma was aggressively moved around the operating table and suffered bruises.

As a result of this aggression and lack of caution, Xavier was born brain-damaged, covered in blood, and with 1 eyeball — literally — hanging out of its socket.

Emma explains that she did not consent to this procedure until after Xavier was born:

“The doctor who delivered the baby came to see me after the birth and handed me a form. ‘Sign this, please,’ she said, without explaining what it was for.‘ It was only after she’d gone that the recovery nurse said to me: ‘You do know you should have signed that before you had the procedure.’”

Although the hospital has admitted liability for Emma’s and Xavier’s damage, none of the staff has apologized for their incompetence. Emma says, “I’ve waited for a word of regret from the doctor, but I’ve not had a phone call or a letter from her.”

Emma’s story is heartbreaking. What this recent study reveals is that there is a huge difference in how doctors treat their patients when medical error has occurred. Thankfully, malpractice lawsuits can, over time, help rectify this issue and change medical procedures and policies.

Sokolove Law Team

Contributing Authors

The Sokolove Law Content Team is made up of writers, editors, and journalists. We work with case managers and attorneys to keep site information up to date and accurate. Our site has a wealth of resources available for victims of wrongdoing and their families.

Last modified: September 29, 2020