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Small changes can make a big difference in surgical errors

Good news for hospital patients in Houston and elsewhere. A recent project by seven big hospitals across the country has reduced surgery-linked infections by almost one-third. These types of surgical errors can cost hospitals millions of dollars.

It is estimated that the project prevented 135 infections after colorectal surgeries, saving about $4 million over the course of 2.5 years. These simple measures included having patients take showers using special germ-fighting soap just before surgery, having surgery teams change their gowns and medical instruments throughout the surgery to avoid the spread of germs. The measures also decreased the stays for patients who got infections from an average of 15 days to 13 days, which also cut costs for the hospitals.

While it is good news that infections are being reduced, they are still a very serious concern for patients and their families. One type of serious infection can occur after a surgeon performs gallbladder surgery. Complications can occur halfway through the operation when the surgeon finds scars from a previous appendectomy in the abdomen. The surgeon can also cause a small tear in the bowel during an abdominal procedure.

Since these complications can occur, surgeons are required to perform a procedure known as "running the bowel." This is when a surgeon examines every part of the intestine to be sure there are no tears, holes or perforations. If a surgeon fails to perform such an examination, there is a high risk that the patient could develop peritonitis, which is a serious post-surgical infection that could lead to death.

While the act of cutting the bowel may not be enough to prove medical malpractice, the lack of proper observation of the patient after the surgery can be. This is because doctors and nurses are aware of such a risk, and are therefore supposed to monitor the patient for symptoms of infection. If they fail to do so, and the patient develops a serious infection, the doctors and nurses can be held accountable for their negligence.

Source: Associated Press, "Simple measures cut infections caught in hospitals," Lindsey Tanner, Nov. 28, 2012

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