Investigating Never Events: How Often Do They Happen?

Medical never events are exactly what they sound like – mistakes that should never happen, such as performing surgery on the wrong site, leaving medical equipment in a body after surgery, and certain types of medication errors and post-operative complications. Unfortunately, while these events shouldn’t occur in medical settings, the fact is that they continue to happen, and more often than anyone should accept. Get the facts on never events and stay vigilant. No one wants to be the victim of such a critical medical mistake.

Never Event Inquiries

The frequency of never events varies widely, depending on the type of error, but a 2006 survey by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ) suggests that the worst error – wrong site surgeries – happen as infrequently as once every 5-10 years in large hospitals. When you take into account all events, however, there are about 4,000 surgical never events nationally every year. Almost all of the wrong site errors could be prevented if hospitals fully complied with the Joint Commission’s Universal Protocol for such events.

Never Event Outcomes

Though obviously hospitals need to actively prevent never events, as consumers it’s important to be realistic about these occurrences and what happens when never events do occur. The most obvious answer is that these events typically lead to serious lawsuits. For example, when an Iowa pathologist mistakenly diagnosed a man with cancer, leading to an unnecessary prostatectomy, the court awarded the victim a $12.5 million settlement. Unfortunately, a legal settlement is cold comfort when medical errors lead to death, as occurred in 71% of reported never event cases in a 12-year study.

Pursuing Justice

Never events are among the easiest types of malpractice cases to prove in medical malpractice cases, but the calculations behind malpractice claims are complicated. In particular, malpractice claims should account for both economic and non-economic damages, which a lawyer can help victims calculate. This encompasses factors like lost wages and earning potential, medical costs and rehabilitation, and emotional pain and suffering. In some cases, spouses or children can also sue for loss of consortium or similar relational harms.

Limitations On Recovery

For those harmed by never events, but who do survive them, there are sometimes limits on how much it’s possible to recover. Some states have restrictive statutes of limitation on medical malpractice claims, while others place a strict cap on non-economic damages. It’s important to speak to a lawyer who specializes in local laws and can ensure prompt and appropriate action.

Looking Toward Zero Harm

At the end of the day, both medical providers and consumers need to ask two critical questions: first, why do never events still happen? And second, how can they be consistently prevented? As Anne Marie Benedicto, vice president of the Joint Commission Center for Transforming Healthcare notes in an interview with Becker’s Hospital Review, “we’re actually seeing organizations get to zero harm for long periods,” which indicates that it is possible to eliminate at least certain never events. The real secret is one of mindset. When hospitals stop accepting errors as part of the cost of operations, they can then take meaningful steps towards preventing harm. Without that change, it’s no surprise that organizations continue to fail patients in catastrophic ways.