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'Never events' happen more often than hospitals want to admit

There are some medical events that should simply never happen -- among them are "wrong site, procedure or patient" errors (WSPEs).

When a WSPE happens, it can attract a lot of attention -- especially if the result is devastating.

For example, a doctor amputating the wrong leg means that the patient is going to lose both legs. A doctor that performs a procedure on an incorrect section of a patient's spine is dooming that patient to a second, highly-dangerous surgery and a painful healing process -- after subjecting the patient to one that was unnecessary. A doctor who given an angioplasty to the wrong patient's puts two lives in danger -- the patient who received the unnecessary and invasive procedure and the patient whose surgery was delayed.

But how often do these kinds of things really happen? The answer to that question depends largely on who you ask and how narrow you make the search for such events.

For example, medical site administrators like to cite a study that said that WSPEs only happen about one time out of every 112,000 surgeries -- which means that a hospital might see a WSPE incident only once every five years, at most.

However, that data came only from procedures that were done in operating rooms. It did not include procedures that were done in an ambulatory surgery setting, radiology or emergency rooms.

When the parameters of a WSPE study was broadened using data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, the rate of WSPEs approximately doubled. Just as many "never events" were taking place outside operating rooms as inside them.

That means things like a harried doctor examining a patient's wrong foot for gangrene or evaluating a patient who came in complaining of chest pain for blood clots in the leg because he or she has been mistaken for the patient the next room over.

Preventable errors like these are something that can sometimes be fixed with no lasting harm to the patient. In other cases, the harm is extensive and long-lasting. If you're the victim of a WSPE "never" event, inside or outside of an operating room, it's wisest to get experienced legal counsel and explore your options for recovery -- before you talk to the hospital's insurance adjusters and legal team.

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