Distractions, fatigue cause surgical error, studies find

Distractions are not uncommon in an operating room. Some doctors and other medical staff prefer to have music in the background, believing that it soothes the surgeon. Other noise may come from surrounding machinery or a surgeon's power tools. Another doctor or resident may enter the OR to ask a question of the surgeon. Anesthesiologists may surf the web and nurses may play games on their cell phones or even take a call. Even just the opening and closing of doors may provide a momentary loss of concentration.

Patients and the medical community can therefore legitimately ask: do these distractions increase the likelihood of a medical error?

One study, published in the Journal of the American College of Surgeons in May, found that the speech comprehension of surgeons lowered when common background noises were present in the OR. Music was also significant barrier to speech comprehension when the surgeon was engaged in a task.

The Oregon Health and Sciences University also conducted a study that found surgeons in residency made mistakes nearly half the time when they were distracted during a simulated gall-bladder removal surgery. Mistakes were more common in the afternoon, meaning fatigue may also play a role in whether a surgeon can become more distracted by common noises in an OR. Eight of the 18 residents tested made a surgical error after becoming distracted, and major errors such as damage to organs and arteries could have caused death in a real patient.

In an interview with the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Dwight W. Burney III explained why distractions can cause an increase in medical errors. There are two types of skill sets a surgeon needs, Dr. Burney noted. There are performance skills, which is the technical aptitude of the surgeon, and the nontechnical skills, which involves the surgical team and communication, coordination, and teamwork. "If you're trying to maintain a smooth flow of the surgical process and your ability to communicate well and to coordinate is being affected, it can introduce the potential for error and harm," Dr. Burney said to the AAOS editorial staff.

Medical errors continue

Despite a renewed focus on patient safety, medical errors unfortunately continue. According to American Medical News, which looked at 350,000 paid claims of medical malpractice from 1986 to 2010, about 30 percent of claims were for diagnosis errors. Treatment mistakes encompassed 27 percent of paid claims and surgical errors involved 24 percent of paid claims.

Patients and their loved ones who believe they have experienced a situation involving a medical error should contact an experienced personal injury attorney to discuss their legal options.