Medical Errors, Past and Present

It's every surgical patient's worst nightmare. And it happened three times at Rhode Island Hospital.

According to Associated Press reports, the hospital was fined $50,000 and reprimanded by the state Department of Health on Monday after the third episode this year involving a doctor performing brain surgery on the wrong side of a patient's head.

Fortunately, the chance of a serious mistake occurring during any given medical procedure is small. But these errors do happen -- a fact evidenced by this recent news.

Not all hospitals share this track record. But due to the sheer number of medical procedures that take place in the country every year, even isolated incidents add up. A report last April by the independent health care-ratings company HealthGrades found through Medicare hospitalization records that nearly 3 percent of patients in the nation's hospitals risk experiencing hospital errors.

The report further suggested that those patients who experience an error in treatment or care at a hospital have a one in four chance of dying from the mistake. In total, HealthGrades said, 247,662 patients studied between 2003 and 2005 died from potentially preventable problems.

And the Institute of Medicine estimates that each year 1.5 million patients suffer from mistakes with the medicine they're given.

"Every error that results in harm to the patient is something health care providers and hospitals struggle to prevent," says Nancy Foster, the American Hospital Association's vice president for quality and patient safety policy. "We want no one to be harmed in the course of their care, yet we do know that [errors] happen."

Foster says hospitals nationwide have implemented a number of measures to keep mistakes from occurring, such as marking the sites on a patient's body that will be operated on before surgery, and teamwork training for surgical personnel.

Still, open records of the errors in some states have brought to light a handful of serious hospital errors that have endangered some patients -- and cost others their lives.

According to a report last month by the Boston Globe, Massachusetts hospitals reported 36 instances since January 2005 in which doctors performed the wrong procedure or operated on the wrong site or wrong patient.

ABC News, too, has been following high-profile cases of medical errors. The examples that follow are a just a few of the very rare -- but very serious -- errors that have affected the lives of patients over the last 15 years.

Surgery on Wrong Side of Head -- Three Times?

The third time is far from a charm for Rhode Island Hospital. On Friday, a neurosurgeon at the hospital began a surgery by drilling the right side of the patient's head, even though a CT scan showed bleeding on the left side, according to local reports.

The resident reportedly caught his mistake early, after which he closed the initial hole and proceeded on the left side of the patient's head. The patient was listed in fair condition on Sunday.

"We are extremely concerned about this continuing pattern," noted David R. Gifford director of Health for Lifespan Corp., which runs the hospital in a written statement, according to the Associated Press. The AP reported Tuesday that the hospital has been fined $50,000 for this third transgression.

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