Medication Mistakes Frequent in Surgery | Health Blog

Medication Mistakes Frequent in Surgery

Medication Mistakes Frequent in Surgery | Health Blog

When you get the news that you have to undergo an operation, you probably do your due diligence. You research potential surgeons, compare hospital ratings, and find out everything you can about the procedure. All of that is certainly important and beneficial. But the bad news is that no matter how you try to stack the odds in your favor, mistakes are commonplace in operating rooms. And new research suggests that drug errors may occur a lot more frequently than we’d like to think during surgery–a lot more.

The study, which took place at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts, found that medication errors are made in nearly 50% of surgical procedures.1 Nanji, Karen C.; et al. “Evaluation of Perioperative Medication Errors and Adverse Drug Events.” Anesthesiology. October 2015. Accessed 1 November 2015. The scientists analyzed 277 operations that were performed at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston over a seven-month period between 2013 and 2014. In some instances the drug mistakes were recorded in the patient’s surgical record, and, in the rest of the cases, they were discovered when the investigators evaluated the medical charts.

Medication errors were identified as a whole range of things that could go wrong including providing an incorrect dosage, mistakes in labeling of drugs, errors in medication documentation, and failing to address changes to a patient’s vital signs during the procedure. When all of this was taken into account and evaluated, the researchers found that mistakes or adverse drug events (which are injuries that result from drug-related medical interventions) occurred in a whopping 124 of the 277 surgeries analyzed. Each surgery included in the study was analyzed from the patient’s point of entry into pre-operative areas through their placement in a recovery room or an intensive care unit after surgery.

The breakdown looks somewhat better for patients when the researchers shifted perspective and assessed the drug errors based on the number of medications provided during these surgeries since most patients receive multiple drugs during an operation. There were 3,675 administrations of medication examined, and among them the scientists found 193 medication errors or adverse drug events that arose, which is a much smaller overall percentage despite the ridiculously high number of drugs used. But sadly, they determined that approximately 80 percent of these errors could have been prevented.

What’s more, the researchers deemed two-thirds of the medication errors “serious,” with the remainder labeled “significant.” The good news is that none of the patients actually died from the mistakes that were uncovered, but two percent of the mistakes were listed as life threatening, so it’s entirely possible that fatalities might occur with other patients.

This research is somewhat limited in scope because it is relatively small and only focuses on one medical facility, so we don’t know exactly how bad this problem is elsewhere. But considering the fact that Massachusetts General Hospital is ranked the number one hospital in the country in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Hospitals 2015-20162 “#1 in the Nation.” Massachusetts General Hospital. 21 July 2015. Accessed 2 November 2015. and is considered a top hospital in terms of patient safety issues and, in fact, actually supported this study in an attempt to reduce the risk of medication errors during surgery, we have to acknowledge that these types of mistakes are likely rampant at medical facilities everywhere.

Unfortunately, there is only so much we can do to prevent human error from occurring, especially in the fast-paced, high-stress setting of an operating room. Logic would dictate that if you choose a surgical team experienced in performing the procedure you are undergoing, less should go wrong but there are always unforeseeable circumstances. Consider the hospital you will be admitted to as much as the surgeon you plan to use to make sure the facility has the strictest surgical protocols in place and the best record of success. Remember, you can always check your hospital’s report card.

If you take good care of yourself in the first place, there’s also the possibility that you’ll never have to go through a surgery. You can lower your risk of many conditions–from cancer to heart disease to diabetes–just by exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, which will in turn lessen the chance that you will need certain kinds of operations down the road. And don’t forget that there are major surgeries including hysterectomies, stent procedures, and knee replacements, that may not really be necessary. So do your homework and don’t put yourself in harm’s way for nothing.


1 Nanji, Karen C.; et al. “Evaluation of Perioperative Medication Errors and Adverse Drug Events.” Anesthesiology. October 2015. Accessed 1 November 2015.
2 “#1 in the Nation.” Massachusetts General Hospital. 21 July 2015. Accessed 2 November 2015.

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