There are two types of surgical errors: avoidable ones and “known and accepted complications of the procedure.” Avoidable errors occur when surgeons fail to take proper precautions during a surgery, perform wrong-site surgery or perform a surgery that is not indicated thereby putting the patient at unnecessary risk. When an avoidable surgical error occurs and harm ensues, there is likely a basis for a medical malpractice claim under Ohio law. Surgical fires are one type of avoidable surgical error.
Per the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), “[a] surgical fire is a fire that occurs in, on or around a patient undergoing a medical or surgical procedure.*** Some fires cause disfiguring second- and third-degree burns. If the fire occurs in the patient’s airway, it can be fatal.” The FDA, relying on data from the ECRI Institute, an organization that evaluates medical products and processes, estimates that 550 to 650 surgical fires happen every year in U.S. operating rooms.
Surgical fires occur when gases used during surgery, such as oxygen or nitrous oxide, are ignited with heat generating tools, such as electrocautery tools, lasers or fiber-optic lights. According to the FDA, “[s]urgeries of the head, neck and upper chest pose a greater risk of fire, especially if the patient is receiving extra oxygen through a breathing mask or nasal tubing.”
The problem occurs often enough that the FDA organized a coalition of surgical teams, hospitals, healthcare engineering companies and patient safety organizations to prevent this medical error. The FDA’s Preventing Surgical Fires Initiative (www.fda.gov/preventingsurgicalfires) was formed to encourage caregivers to adopt safe surgical practices to prevent fires in the operating room (O.R.).
Avoidable surgical errors often carry devastating consequences. Patients are most vulnerable when they are sedated. Many things, including fires, can go wrong if due care is not employed to protect the defenseless in this setting.