Study Finds Young Surgeons Prone to Errors When Distracted in the Operating Room

When patients enter a hospital operating room for surgery, they assume their surgeons and other health care providers are well-trained, competent and focused on the task at hand. All too often, however, an operating room environment can produce distractions which affect the surgeon's ability to carry out a procedure successfully. A study published in the Annals of Surgery illustrated how operating room events unrelated to the procedure can negatively affect a surgeon's performance and a patient's health.

Looking at operating room distractions

Researchers at Oregon State University and the Oregon Health and Science University collaborated on a study examining what causes surgeons to make mistakes in the operating room. Such experiments are called "human factors engineering," intended to identify reasons humans make errors, note approaches or systems that contribute to errors and generate ideas about ways to improve performance.

The study's authors believed that there was a lack of solid research in the area of the risks associated with operating room distractions and interruptions and sought to rectify that. For the study, researchers had 18 second-year, third-year and research-year surgical residents complete a simulated laparoscopic cholecystectomy, an operation that removes a patient's gall bladder with minimally invasive instruments, requiring skill and concentration on the part of the surgeon.

Each subject performed the surgery twice. During one of the times a subject was operating, researchers included distracting events such as a cell phone ringing, a metal tray falling to the floor or people asking the surgeon questions or having side conversations. Researchers observed operating rooms for several months prior to the study to ensure that they used distractions that actually occur in hospitals.

Eight of the 18 subjects made a serious surgery error, such as damage to organs, arteries or ducts, when there were distractions during the surgery. Only one subject who made an error during the distraction-free surgery. Additionally, researchers noted that mistakes were more prevalent in the afternoon.

Implications for training surgeons

The study's findings are important because serious surgery errors can be fatal for patients. The authors noted that the study dealt with fairly inexperienced surgeons and that performance improves with practice. As such, it is important for surgeons to train in simulations that include distractions that are typical of the operating room.

Researchers also noted that while more experienced surgeons are more accustomed to operating room distractions, it does not mean they are totally immune from distractions impacting their performance - particularly if they have high workloads or are fatigued.

Talk to a lawyer

Health care providers have a duty to provide a reasonable level of care for patients. When they fail to fulfill that duty, patients suffer. Health care providers may be liable for harm they inflict on patients when they do not meet the standard of care they need to offer. If you have suffered injuries because a health care provider's error, speak with an experienced medical malpractice attorney who can help you recover for your losses.