September 01, 2012

Wrong Site Surgery Performed by ENT

In 2010, an ENT performed a tongue tie release on a 5 years old child who was supposed to undergo a tongue lesion biopsy (apparently 1cm in size over the central dorsal tongue). Tongue tie release was NOT consented for nor discussed with the parents who expected a tongue biopsy to be performed instead. In the investigative report performed by the Department of Public Health:
"When the surgeon was asked whether he examined the patient in the preop area prior to the surgery, he stated, "Usually, I don't examine anybody. I sometimes visit... In this case, there was no time to do a pre-operative visit. From now on, I need to see the patient prior to the surgery." [link]
According to the record, time-out WAS performed. Consent WAS in the chart for a tongue lesion biopsy. Records indicated that all mandated check-lists and time-outs were performed.

So what happened?

1) Surgeon Error: Let's face it... the surgeon made a mistake. Ultimately, it is his responsibility to ensure that the procedure goes smoothly which by definition means doing the correct procedure.

Seeing patients before surgery probably would have prevented this error. Not seeing the patient prior to surgery is not good practice.

Even if a surgeon employs a nurse practitioner or a physician assistant to see patients for him in the office or in the hospital, before any surgery, he personally should examine and discuss the upcoming surgery with all patients.

As an aside, at least once per week, I have patients calling who desire to schedule surgery without wanting to see me first for a consultation appointment. There are many reasons why I mandate that a patient MUST first be personally seen by me in the office PRIOR to any surgery scheduling. Preventing this scenario is one good reason why.

2) Nursing Error??? If the nurses knew what procedure was supposed to be done (according to the report, they did)... they should have spoken up! If they were too afraid to speak up, they should have contacted management to speak up for them... or ask the anesthesiologist to say something.

After all, patient welfare supersedes all else. Having wrong site surgery is the exact opposite.

However, to be fair in this particular situation, I do not believe the nurses knew what the surgeon was doing. Why???

The procedure was being done inside the mouth and a small child's mouth at that... honestly, nobody except the surgeon and possibly the anesthesiologist can really see what the surgeon is doing. The instruments used for tongue tie release is very similar to what would be used for tongue lesion biopsy.

3) Time-Out and Check-List Error: In a typical day, there are so many time-outs and check-lists being performed that it starts to get muted into background noise. It's just like the alarms and blinking lights that I imagine an instrument panel of a sophisticated machine would be for somebody who stares at it all day, everyday. You hear/see it... but than you don't hear/see it.

What people notice are sounds that are unusual for a given situation.

For example, cars make all sorts of noises when being turned on and moving somewhere. However, most people don't actually "hear" the sounds being produced by the car because of our lack of attention to it, because it is repetitive and continuous.

However, if one day, the engine starts knocking, that certainly gets a driver's attention and remembered.

Time-outs and check-lists suffer from inattention... even if performed.

They are a wonderful tool, but utterly undependable for long-term use.

So what would work given it must be done per regulations??? My suggestion would be to mix it up to prevent it from becoming "background" noise.

Have the time-out performed by different members of the surgical staff on every case rather than the same person. Ring a bell before doing time-out one time. On another time, have everyone dance a short jig before doing it. Whatever is done, do NOT make it repetitive which otherwise risks being inadvertently ignored.

The key is to make it different and notable each and every time in order to focus attention and prevent the task from becoming muted into the background.

CA Fines 14 Hospitals for Medical Errors. Health Leaders Media 8/31/12

California Human and Health Resources Department of Public Health Report. 5/18/11
Fauquier blog
Fauquier ENT

Dr. Christopher Chang is a private practice otolaryngology, head & neck surgeon specializing in the treatment of problems related to the ear, nose, and throat. Located in Warrenton, VA about 45 minutes west of Washington DC, he also provides inhalant allergy testing/treatment, hearing tests, and dispenses hearing aids.


Anonymous said...

Actually, checklists have been used successfully in aviation for decades with no inattention issues. The problem here is cultural and behavioral. The cultural still hasn't shifted because surgeons are dismissive of checklists and timeouts.

Anonymous said...

Successfully in aviation???

Is that why there are drunk pilots still flying, planes are still crashing, tower FAA control people are overworked with not enough sleep, pilots flying without enough sleep, etc???

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