Background: Surgical never events are being used increasingly as quality metrics in health care in the United States. However, little is known about their costs to the health care system, the outcomes of patients, or the characteristics of the providers involved. We designed a study to describe the number and magnitude of paid malpractice claims for surgical never events, as well as associated patient and provider characteristics. Methods: We used the National Practitioner Data Bank, a federal repository of medical malpractice claims, to identify malpractice settlements and judgments of surgical never events, including retained foreign bodies, wrong-site, wrong-patient, and wrong-procedure surgery. Payment amounts, patient outcomes, and provider characteristics were evaluated. Results: We identified a total of 9,744 paid malpractice settlement and judgments for surgical never events occurring between 1990 and 2010. Malpractice payments for surgical never events totaled $1.3 billion. Mortality occurred in 6.6% of patients, permanent injury in 32.9%, and temporary injury in 59.2%. Based on literature rates of surgical adverse events resulting in paid malpractice claims, we estimated that 4,082 surgical never event claims occur each year in the United States. Increased payments were associated with severe patient outcomes and claims involving a physician with multiple malpractice reports. Of physicians named in a surgical never event claim, 12.4% were later named in at least 1 future surgical never event claim. Conclusion: Surgical never events are costly to the health care system and are associated with serious harm to patients. Patient and provider characteristics may help to guide prevention strategies.
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