Rates of Serious Surgical Errors in California and Plans to Prevent Recurrence

Andrew J. Cohen, Hansen Lui, Micha Zheng, Bhagat Cheema, German Patino, Michael A. Kohn, Anthony Enriquez, Benjamin N. Breyer

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Importance: Despite widespread recognition and known harms, serious surgical errors, known as surgical never events, endure. The California Department of Public Health (CDPH) has developed an oversight system to capture never events and a platform for process improvement that has not yet been critically appraised. Objectives: To examine surgical never events occurring in hospitals in California and summarize recommendations to prevent future events. Design, Setting, and Participants: This cross-sectional study identified 386 CDPH hospital administrative penalty reports, of which 142 were ascribable to never events occurring during surgery. These never events were identified and summarized from January 1, 2007, to December 31, 2017. A directed qualitative approach was used to analyze CDPH-mandated corrective steps to reduce future errors in this multicenter study of all accredited hospitals in California. Inclusion of surgical never event records was based on definitions established by the US Department of Health and Human Services National Quality Forum. Data analysis was performed from January 1, 2019, to November 30, 2020. Exposures: Never events include death or disability of an American Society of Anesthesiologists class I patient, wrong site or wrong surgery, retained foreign objects, burns, equipment failure leading to intraoperative injury, nonapproved experimental procedures, insufficient surgeon presence or privileges, or fall from the operating room table. Main Outcomes and Measures: Incident rates, consequences, and improvement plans to prevent additional never events were outcomes of interest. Results: A total of 142 never events were reported to the CDPH (1 per 200000 operations). Annual surgical volume for hospitals with events was 9203 vs 3251 cases for hospitals without events (P <.001). A total of 94 of 142 events (66.2%) were retained foreign objects ranging from Kocher clamps to drain sponges. Wrong site or patient surgery accounted for 22 events (15.5%), surgical burns for 11 (7.7%), and other for 15 (10.6%). Other included insufficient surgeon presence, equipment failure, or falls in the operating room. Improvement plans included 18 unique categories of recommendations from regulators, many focusing on proper use of checklists. Regulators mandated a mean (SD) of 13 (7) corrective actions in the improvement plans. Policy adherence monitoring (119 [90.2%]), revision of existing policy (84 [63.6%]), and education regarding policy (83 [62.9%]) were common action items, whereas disciplinary action toward staff was rare (11 [8.3%]). Conclusions and Relevance: Surgical never events are a rare issue in California. Numerous strategies have evolved to reduce errors, many involving the thorough and proper use of intraoperative checklists..

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJAMA Network Open
StateAccepted/In press - 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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