Medical negligence: When brain surgery goes wrong

Two doctors looking at a brain scan

We all admire brain surgeons. They deal with life and death. They take responsibility for high-risk surgery. However, when brain surgery goes wrong, patients can suffer terrible harm. Some die. Others can be left blind, paralysed or disabled.

How hard is brain surgery?

People often say, ‘it’s not brain surgery’ – meaning it’s not that hard. However, according to a leading neurosurgeon, brain surgery is not difficult. This may of course be modesty, but he sees the real difficulty as knowing what decision to make.

A patient with a brain tumour may slowly deteriorate. Surgery may cure her. It may also cause catastrophic harm. The stakes are high. Which is the better course? It is for the surgeon to advise of the risks of both. The patient then has a difficult decision to make.

Brain surgery: mistakes may be common

Research from the USA suggests that mistakes in brain surgery are actually quite common. However, very little has been done to work out what goes wrong and why. This means surgeons don’t learn as much as they should from their mistakes. According to one study the error rate is astonishingly high.

How can brain surgery go wrong?

There is the occasional tragic story of extraordinary mistakes. For instance, in Kenya recently, a surgeon operated on the wrong patient. In another case, the surgeon operated on the wrong part of the brain. These are unusual and extreme cases. More common are patients suffering harm from injury to healthy neighbouring parts of the brain, from bleeding or clots causing strokes.

The most common mistakes are technical errors – causing harm by a lack of skill. Some are down to slips. A surgeon may for instance make a slip with a surgical instrument. A neurosurgeon from Coventry was recently accused of ‘rough surgery’. It was said that his technique was wrong.

There are other mistakes when a surgeon succeeds in doing what he or she intends, but it was the wrong thing to do. The technical skill was correct, but the wrong skill was used.

Technical errors account for around 25% of traumatic brain injury mistakes. For instance, one surgeon has recently been accused of removing a healthy part of the brain rather than the tumour. He was prevented by his hospital from carrying out specific procedures.

Other common mistakes involve:

  • Contamination
  • Equipment failing, or using the wrong equipment
  • Delays
  • Mistakes by nurses
  • Mistakes by anaesthetists – such as extubating patients (taking breathing tubes out) too early
  • Mistakes with laboratory results

Errors are more common with the most unwell patients. This may be because their operations take longer.

Some of these errors are unexpected and unavoidable. However, many are avoidable.

When things go wrong: Brain injury compensation

The risks are high and mistakes can be devastating for patients and their families. Damage to the brain can change our personalities; some people find they can no longer read, find the right word, recognise numbers or remember names; others lose movement – they may be unable to use their arm or leg one side or even be completely paralysed. In some of the worse cases people have been left in a vegetative state or died.

Where patients are harmed by negligent errors they may be able to claim damages. Brain injury claims cannot undo the harm, but they can help people cope with life better. For instance, damages can make up for lost earnings, pay for care or meet the costs of equipment and housing.

Get advice about surgical negligence

These brain injury claims are complex and it is important to have a lawyer with the right experience and expertise. If you would like advice about a possible claim please contact our medical negligence team and speak to one of our specialist lawyers.

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