Surgeons Who Perform Overlapping Surgeries Put Patients at Risk

A man in Massachusetts who possessed a degenerative condition that constantly put pressure on his spinal cord entered the operating room under the impression that after the surgery, he would be pain free for the first time in years. He had no idea his surgeon would be juggling his complex surgery with an even more difficult procedure just two rooms down. After the surgery, he was asked to squeeze the doctor’s fingers and move his toes, and he found he couldn’t move. The doctor had somehow bent the man’s spinal cord at an angle that penetrated the membrane holding the spinal cord, paralyzing the man from the neck down.

Double-booking two or more surgeries at once is a dangerous yet common practice among medical professionals. Performing surgeries concurrently saves surgeons time and generates twice as much revenue. However, the risk it poses to patients who are going under the knife is extremely high, and most are not even aware they are sharing a surgeon with another patient.

What are the Risks of Double-booking Surgeries?

The complications from several double-booked surgeries started a controversy at Massachusetts General Hospital that has spread nationwide. Out of 47 hospitals, a study found most of them overlapped their surgeries. Some of these surgeries only overlapped a few minutes. However, some procedures overlapped for hours at a time. Many of these hospitals and medical professionals (including Mass. General) advocate that overlapping surgeries does not hinder doctor performance, as long as it is “done properly.”

However, some medical professionals are going against the grain in saying concurring surgeries require doctors to move back in forth from one room to another. This forces doctors to split their focus and leaves marginal room for errors, as demonstrated by the man who is now quadriplegic. In many cases, residents are allowed to make the first incisions, then have to wait for the lead surgeon to come back. This leaves the patient open on the table and increases the risk of infection. Patients who are involved in overlapping surgeries are often under anesthesia for longer periods of time, which can cause patients to stroke out or develop pneumonia.

The worst part is neither Mass. General, nor many other hospitals that practice concurrent surgeries, require surgeons to explicitly inform their patients they will be performing overlapping procedures.

Surgeons Should Not Be Allowed to Practice Concurrent Surgeries

With the amount of responsibility placed in their hands, doctors owe it to patients to offer full disclosure about how they will spend their time in surgery. Be aware if the hospital policy only speaks about general involvement of the attending surgeon. If the consent form specifies he or she may not be present during the entirety of the procedure, it may be necessary for you to clarify whether your surgery overlaps another.

While some doctors argue overlapping surgeries is the best way to make use of their skills sets, it seems sloppy and inefficient. When doctors tend to patients, it should be about quality care, not churning out as many as possible. Risking patient safety for the sake of quantity does not justify the amount of revenue doctors receive.

Stanley A. Davis is a personal injury attorney who helps victims of medical malpractice and other accidents in Nashville.

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