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Open Access Research

The incidence, root-causes, and outcomes of adverse events in surgical units: implication for potential prevention strategies

Marieke Zegers1*, Martine C de Bruijne2, Bertus de Keizer2, Hanneke Merten2, Peter P Groenewegen13, Gerrit van der Wal24 and Cordula Wagner12

Author Affiliations

1 NIVEL, Netherlands Institute for Health Services Research, Utrecht, The Netherlands

2 EMGO Institute, Department of Public and Occupational Health, VU University Medical Centre (VUmc), Amsterdam, The Netherlands

3 Department of Sociology, Department of Human Geography, Utrecht University, The Netherlands

4 Netherlands Health Care Inspectorate, Utrecht, The Netherlands

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Patient Safety in Surgery 2011, 5:13  doi:10.1186/1754-9493-5-13

Published: 20 May 2011

Abstract

Background

We need to know the scale and underlying causes of surgical adverse events (AEs) in order to improve the safety of care in surgical units. However, there is little recent data. Previous record review studies that reported on surgical AEs in detail are now more than ten years old. Since then surgical technology and quality assurance have changed rapidly. The objective of this study was to provide more recent data on the incidence, consequences, preventability, causes and potential strategies to prevent AEs among hospitalized patients in surgical units.

Methods

A structured record review study of 7,926 patient records was carried out by trained nurses and medical specialist reviewers in 21 Dutch hospitals. The aim was to determine the presence of AEs during hospitalizations in 2004 and to consider how far they could be prevented. Of all AEs, the consequences, responsible medical specialty, causes and potential prevention strategies were identified. Surgical AEs were defined as AEs attributable to surgical treatment and care processes and were selected for analysis in detail.

Results

Surgical AEs occurred in 3.6% of hospital admissions and represented 65% of all AEs. Forty-one percent of the surgical AEs was considered to be preventable. The consequences of surgical AEs were more severe than for other types of AEs, resulting in more permanent disability, extra treatment, prolonged hospital stay, unplanned readmissions and extra outpatient visits. Almost 40% of the surgical AEs were infections, 23% bleeding, and 22% injury by mechanical, physical or chemical cause. Human factors were involved in the causation of 65% of surgical AEs and were considered to be preventable through quality assurance and training.

Conclusions

Surgical AEs occur more often than other types of AEs, are more often preventable and their consequences are more severe. Therefore, surgical AEs have a major impact on the burden of AEs during hospitalizations. These findings concur with the results from previous studies. However, evidence-based solutions to reduce surgical AEs are increasingly available. Interventions directed at human causes are recommended to improve the safety of surgical care. Examples are team training and the surgical safety checklist. In addition, specific strategies are needed to improve appropriate use of antibiotic prophylaxis and sustainable implementation of hygiene guidelines to reduce infections.