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Is Wrong-Level Spinal Surgery the Same as Wrong Site Surgery?

Mar 29, 2016 Brown Moore Spine Injury

In recent years, news about the disturbing frequency of wrong-site surgery has reached the general public. These medical errors involve operating on the wrong body part, and they are known as never events because it is relatively easy to put safeguards in place to ensure that they never happen.

The term, wrong-level surgery is a similar event that applies specifically to spinal surgery. Since it is certainly more technically challenging than distinguishing between, for example, the left foot and the right one, not every case is caused by medical negligence. One of the key questions pertains to whether any given case of wrong-level surgery could have been prevented with due care.

Spinal Surgery Requires Imaging Before and During Procedures

The spinal column contains 33 bones and 23 disks, any of which can be the source of pain and disability. When surgery offers the best solution, the process begins by using imaging technology to look at the entire spine and locate the area (known as a level) that requires repair. Once the surgery begins, additional imaging during surgery helps surgeons to identify the area to work on.

According to Healio, an in-depth specialty clinical information website, a recent survey of 173 doctors showed that 68 percent of respondents performed either wrong-level exposures or wrong-level spinal surgeries at some point during their careers. Not all wrong-level surgeries pointed to medical negligence, based on the two most common causes cited:

  • Poor imaging during surgery: This can be caused by the imprecise placement of imaging equipment during surgery, but due to the need for multiple image angles, the scans can be challenging to interpret correctly. Anatomical differences of patients can increase the chances for errors, as well. For example, greater body fat can affect the ability to clearly see the spinal cord structure.
  • Varied counting procedures: During pre-operative imaging, it is probably most common to count the bones starting from the C2 vertebra toward the top of the spinal column. In the operating room, however, counting typically moves upward from a lower level of the spine. Although the counts should identify the same bone from either direction, errors can occur — particularly considering the possibility of imaging issues.

While these types of errors certainly point to the complexities involved in this type of surgery, the fact remains that in many cases, errors can be prevented when surgical teams use standardized protocols, better communication techniques, and obtain second opinions during periods of even minimal uncertainty.

Second Surgeries Should Be the Exception Rather Than the Rule

Again, it is important to point out that incidents involving wrong-level surgery cannot always be avoided; however, greater care before and during surgery can help reduce the need to return for a second surgery. In many cases, patients must completely heal from surgery before they fully realize that the original condition still exists. They may not even be aware that the need for more surgery might have been avoided — and now, they face additional recovery time and medical expenses.

Even a slight suspicion that medical error contributed to the need for more surgery calls for a free initial consultation with a Charlotte spine injury attorney who also has medical malpractice experience. Before scheduling another surgical procedure, call us at 800-948-0577 or use our convenient online contact form.