Johns Hopkins’ Study Finds 4,000 “Never Events” at U.S. Hospitals Each Year

Chest x-ray with glowing surgical tool left behind after surgery

According to “cautious” estimates by Johns Hopkins researchers, surgeons operating in U.S. hospitals:

  • Leave a foreign object, such as a sponge, inside a patient’s body after an operation 39 times each week
  • Perform the wrong procedure on a patient 20 times each week
  • Operate on the wrong body part 20 times each week

The numbers add up to a whopping 4,000 monumental and wholly preventable medical errors committed each year in operating rooms, according to the study published online in the journal Surgery last month.  As stunning as this seems, researchers cautioned that the estimates likely were low.

The Johns Hopkins patient safety researchers said they believed it was the first time that errors known as “never events” in hospital lingo (as in, “never supposed to happen”) have been documented.

The medical community has the legal community to thank for the data. Researchers said they analyzed medical malpractice lawsuits filed between 1990 and 2010 to find hard evidence of these errors. Although hospitals are supposed to voluntarily report “never events” to the hospital accreditation commission, they don’t always comply, the researchers noted.

The study also revealed:

  • Of the 9,744 paid malpractice judgments and claims identified during the study timeframe,  6.6 percent resulted in the patient’s death, 32.9 percent led to permanent injury, and 59.2 percent created temporary injury.
  • The younger the surgeon, the higher the rate of  “never event” instances.
  • Of the surgeons involved, 62 percent were cited in more than one separate malpractice report, and 12.4 percent were named in separate surgical never events. In other words, the same surgeons tended to be involved, lending credence to the “bad apple” theory that medical malpractice could be reduced if poor doctors were weeded out by the medical community itself.

Lead researcher Marty Makary, M.D., M.P.H., an associate professor of surgery at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, suggested one way to get hospitals to put more effort into preventing these mistakes is to require them to publicly disclose their “never events” each year. This would at least give patients the information they need to make more informed choices about where to go for surgery, as well as “put hospitals under the gun to make things safer,” he said.

Medical malpractice lawsuits are indisputably one of the biggest reasons hospitals and doctors pay as much attention to patient safety as they do. Adding public accountability to the mix couldn’t hurt.

To learn more about medical malpractice, read “Medical and Hospital Errors FAQ.”

If you or a loved one was a victim of medical malpractice, contact one of our personal injury attorneys for a free, no obligation legal consultation.

Scroll to Top