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Patterns of Technical Error Among Surgical Malpractice Claims: An Analysis of Strategies to Prevent Injury to Surgical Patients

Regenbogen, Scott E. MD, MPH*†; Greenberg, Caprice C. MD, MPH‡; Studdert, David M. LLB, ScD, MPH*; Lipsitz, Stuart R. ScD‡; Zinner, Michael J. MD‡; Gawande, Atul A. MD, MPH*‡

doi: 10.1097/SLA.0b013e31815865f8
Feature

Objective: To identify the most prevalent patterns of technical errors in surgery, and evaluate commonly recommended interventions in light of these patterns.

Summary Background Data: The majority of surgical adverse events involve technical errors, but little is known about the nature and causes of these events. We examined characteristics of technical errors and common contributing factors among closed surgical malpractice claims.

Methods: Surgeon reviewers analyzed 444 randomly sampled surgical malpractice claims from four liability insurers. Among 258 claims in which injuries due to error were detected, 52% (n = 133) involved technical errors. These technical errors were further analyzed with a structured review instrument designed by qualitative content analysis.

Results: Forty-nine percent of the technical errors caused permanent disability; an additional 16% resulted in death. Two-thirds (65%) of the technical errors were linked to manual error, 9% to errors in judgment, and 26% to both manual and judgment error. A minority of technical errors involved advanced procedures requiring special training (“index operations”; 16%), surgeons inexperienced with the task (14%), or poorly supervised residents (9%). The majority involved experienced surgeons (73%), and occurred in routine, rather than index, operations (84%). Patient-related complexities—including emergencies, difficult or unexpected anatomy, and previous surgery—contributed to 61% of technical errors, and technology or systems failures contributed to 21%.

Conclusions: Most technical errors occur in routine operations with experienced surgeons, under conditions of increased patient complexity or systems failure. Commonly recommended interventions, including restricting high-complexity operations to experienced surgeons, additional training for inexperienced surgeons, and stricter supervision of trainees, are likely to address only a minority of technical errors. Surgical safety research should instead focus on improving decision-making and performance in routine operations for complex patients and circumstances.

Most surgical adverse events involve technical errors. Analyzing surgical malpractice claims, we find that technical errors resulting in serious patient injury occur most often in routine operations by experienced surgeons, but with complex patients and/or circumstances. Prevention of these injuries will require a novel focus in surgical safety research.

From the *Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health; †Department of Surgery, Massachusetts General Hospital; and ‡Center for Surgery and Public Health, Brigham and Women's Hospital, Boston, MA.

Supported by grants from the Harvard Risk Management Foundation and the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (HS011886-03). Kirschstein National Research Service Award T32-HS000020 from the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (to S.E.R.).

Reprints: Scott E. Regenbogen, MD, MPH, Department of Health Policy and Management, Harvard School of Public Health, 677 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. E-mail: sregenbogen@partners.org.

© 2007 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.