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A Study on Clarity After Surgical Errors

How well do surgeons inform patients when something goes wrong during a procedure? In the interest of tracking and improving communication between surgeons and patients, the Center for Healthcare Organization and Implementation Research, Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, recently published a study conducted with Veterans Affairs surgeons.

The results show signs of improvement, but a long way yet to go for medical clarity. 

A Changing Conversation

The study, as reported by CBS News, had a small and very specific sample size—about 60 surgeons from three VA hospitals participated. As such, it is difficult to apply the results to a national scale, but there is information in the study that sheds some light on changing norms. 

The major change is that the vast majority of surgeons studied disclose important information about surgical complications and errors, but just over half of them would go so far as to apologize or explain if the mistake was avoidable.  

While these numbers are not nearly as high as they should be, Dr. Albert Wu, a professor of health policy & management, medicine, and surgery at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told CBS News that it was still a significant improvement from the culture of silence he saw when he began researching this same topic in the eighties. Johns Hopkins itself issued one of the first policies aimed at error disclosure in 2000. 

“I think we now widely accept that patients should be told when things go wrong, when there are unexpected events, when things go other than planned. It's their right to know about it,” Wu stated. 

The Human Element

Wu explained that part of the difficulty in admitting to preventable errors is that surgeons need to operate on a high level of confidence to make fast, steady, and important decisions and actions. Human errors by doctors can undercut that confidence.  

He cited a personal experience where a student’s glasses fell into an open patient. No damage was apparently done. The patient was given a course of antibiotics just in case the glasses weren’t sterile. But simple mistakes like that can make surgeons question their actions in the heat of an important moment, Wu explained. 

We understand the need for surgeons to do their work at peak ability. No one benefits from making doctors so afraid of a mistake that they don’t act quickly or decisively enough to save a life. But we also need to foster an environment that holds surgeons accountable both for their actions and their disclosure to patients, while also recognizing the difference between an unavoidable mishap and a preventable error.  

When patients suffer from surgical negligence, they have a right not only to disclosure of the events but to proper compensation for any pain or complications that may arise. If you believe you may have suffered surgical negligence, contact us today so we can help you get the answers and compensation you deserve.