Study: distractions during surgery increase risk of surgical errors

Surgery can be a stressful experience even if undergoing a routine procedure. It requires the patent to put their trust in the surgeon to do all they can to avoid surgical errors. As a mistake can make the difference between life and death, it seems reasonable that surgeons and other medical professionals would take steps to minimize the chance of being distracted while operating on the patient. However, a recent study found that distractions are a significant problem during surgery.

Distractions and surgery

During the study, which was recently published in the Archives of Surgery, surgical residents performed simulated procedures with and without distraction and interruptions by the researchers. Although other studies in the past introduced surgeons to distractions that are not encountered in a typical operating room such as faulty equipment and mental arithmetic, the Archives of Surgery study focused on realistic distractions.

For the study, researchers used four different distractions: unexpected movement by an observer, a ringing cellphone answered by an observer, noise from something dropping from a metal tray and an conversation between an observer and a third party. In addition, the study included interruptions that required the resident to take action such as questions about another patient. The distractions and interruptions were timed to coincide with an important decision-making point during the procedure.

The results of the study are alarming. The study found that residents who performed the simulated procedures made surgical errors about 44 percent of the time when they were distracted, compared with only about 5 percent when there were no distractions. In addition, more than half of the residents forgot an important memory task when they were distracted; only 22 percent did during uninterrupted surgery.

Surgeon fatigue

In addition to distractions, the study found that fatigue was also a factor in surgical errors during the procedure. Researchers found that all of the errors that happened under the distracting conditions occurred after 1 p.m. The authors of the study wrote that the residents seemed able to perform the simulated procedures effectively with the interruptions before 1 p.m., but were unable to do so after that time.

The study's authors concluded that the study confirmed that realistic distractions and interruptions often lead to negative patient outcomes. However, since the interruptions and distractions occurred only during critical points in the simulated procedures and occurred more frequently than in a typical operating room, the authors warned against exaggerating the results.

As preventable medical errors are a significant cause for patient injury or death, in a perfect world, surgeons and operating room staff would take steps to minimize the risk of being distracted while in the operating room. However, this is not often the case. Under the law, surgeons who fail to take protective steps against medical errors can be held liable for medical malpractice. If you or a loved one has been injured by a surgeon's negligence, contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney to learn about your right to compensation.