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Surgical complications and mistakes are not the same thing

If something goes wrong during a surgery, how do you tell if it was just a complication or an actual mistake, especially when the hospital seems to use the words interchangeably

What exactly is the difference, anyhow?

A mistake is an error on the part of the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, a nurse or some other member of the surgical team and points toward a strong likelihood of some sort of medical negligence, or below-standard care.

A complication is an unexpected, unfavorable event that either makes the surgery less successful than expected or causes it to fail altogether. While some complications could potentially be deeply rooted in medical negligence, the likelihood of malpractice is smaller.

There are all sorts of example that can help illustrate the difference, although some are easier for patients to spot than others. For example, having a patient who has had morphine in the past spontaneously develop a bad reaction and go into shock would be a horrible complication—but it's not an error caused by the surgical team.

On the other hand, if the patient had already developed a morphine allergy but the anesthesiologist glanced at an outdated list of allergies and didn't verify them with the patient before proceeding with the use of the drug during surgery, that's an error.

Most of the time, however, it isn't as easy for a patient, or the patient's surviving family, to tell if something was an actual error or truly an unavoidable complication, simply because they aren't usually highly-skilled medical professionals who know what should have been done before, during and after surgery to prevent negative outcomes.

For example, if the patient has a stroke during surgery due to a blood clot, is that a complication or an error resulting from medical malpractice? Should the surgeon have known, from the patient's blood work, medical history and the type of surgery being done that a blood clot was a strong possibility? If so, should the patient have been given a blood thinner in advance of surgery?

Figuring out the answer to these kinds of questions may be difficult to do without expert assistance. If you suspect that what the surgeon or hospital is calling a "complication" is actually more likely to be an error and medical malpractice, you may want to consider getting legal help. For more information on how we approach surgical errors, please visit our page.

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