Surgical mistakes nearly triple over 10 year period

There has been a big rise in the number of patients falling victim to surgical mistakes, according to annual figures released by NHS Digital.

The figures suggest that more than 6,000 patients needed further NHS treatment following errors or omissions in English hospitals during 2015.

The statistics cover injuries caused by an unintentional cut, puncture, perforation or haemorrhage during surgical and medical care. The follow-up treatment to correct the medical errors also include injuries sustained during private hospital treatment that later had to be cared for by the NHS.

The number of patients requiring NHS treatment after unintentional cuts, punctures, perforations or haemorrhages during surgical and medical care rose from 2,193 to 6,082 between 2005 and 2015.

Susan Liver, Clinical Negligence specialist and a partner at Birchall Blackburn Law, says: “Any kind of surgery, no matter how minor, carries risks but there are guidelines and procedures in place that should prevent things from going wrong.

“Of course, inadequate funding and staffing and a growing and aging population are putting a huge strain on surgical services but that doesn’t ease the human misery a medical mistake can cause to a patient and their family. Many will need practical, emotional and financial support to help them rebuild their lives long after they’ve left hospital.”

In 2014/2015 the NHS carried out 1.6 million more operations compared to 2009/2010. The increase in the number of operations may play a part in the rising NHS Digital annual figures but according to Susan it does not account for the avoidable mistakes that the Birchall Blackburn Law team is increasing seeing.

Susan says: “We’re representing clients who have had things left in during surgery, which is a never event – it shouldn’t ever happen. We’ve had cases where trainee surgeons are left to do back operations unsupervised with serious consequences. We’re also seeing more common errors, such as surgeons mistakenly perforating the bowel during laparoscopic surgery, which can be fatal.

“Time is of the essence and delays in surgery can be just as serious. Cauda equina syndrome involves pressure or swelling on the spinal cord nerves. There is a window of 24 to 48 hours in which surgery must take place to avoid permanent damage. A delay in diagnosis (it can be dismissed as back pain), scan or reporting test results can lead to paralysis, double incontinence and other neurological and physical issues.

“We’ve helped clients who have had X-rays and scans but the results haven’t been acted upon and surgery has been delayed causing permanent problems for the patient.

“After surgery the follow-up care is just as vital. Clients have been allowed to leave hospital without checking their blood test results or the hospital has failed to recall patients promptly. Amputations have been caused by neglect in a number of our cases by a failure to monitor a patient’s test results or a simple infection in the foot.”

Commenting on the NHS Digital figures, Peter Walsh of the charity Action Against Medical Accidents, told the Daily Mail that more complex procedures and better reporting of incidents may also partly explain the rise, but would not account for the figures trebling.

Mr Walsh said: “I suspect inadequate staffing and increased pressure at work are also factors.

“I also know there is a lot of concern among surgeons that the training they get is not as thorough and adequate as used to be the case. There is not as much time spent on technical skills.

“The increase in incidents is very worrying and there needs to be an investigation to get to the bottom of it.”