Surgical Complications

Whenever a patient requires surgery, the surgeon must obtain the patient's consent to perform the procedure.  As part of obtaining informed consent from the patient, the surgeon is required to explain the proposed procedure as well as any potential complications or bad outcomes that may occur if the procedure is performed.  The consent form which is signed by the patient usually contains a list of the potential complications which includes:

  • bleeding,
  • infection,
  • scarring,
  • allergic reaction,
  • shock,
  • blood clots,
  • respiratory difficulties,
  • delayed healing,
  • paralysis and
  • death. 

The type of surgery or procedure that is being performed will usually carry its own set of risks in addition to some of the standard risks listed above.

Before a patient agrees to any procedure, he or she must have a full understanding of these potential risks and balance the likelihood of having a complication against the potential benefit of the proposed surgery.  In other words, the patient must feel confident that the benefits of the procedure far outweigh the potential bad outcomes.  Remember, just because a patient suffers a serious or catastrophic complication or bad outcome does not mean that the surgeon committed malpractice or otherwise made an error.  A small number of patients may suffer unforeseeable allergic reactions to anesthesia or other drugs which may have devastating consequences for them.  Although the outcome is bad, this would not be a result of malpractice.

Post surgical infection is a fairly common complication of surgery.  If a patient suffers from a post-surgical infection, it does not mean that the surgeon or hospital used dirty instruments or failed to maintain a sterile field during surgery.  We are constantly surrounded and bombarded by airborne pathogens which commonly lead to infection.  Moreover, patients that have suppressed immune systems or who are otherwise weakened by their disease process may be more vunerable to infection.

On the other hand, just because a patient signed a consent form which included a complication that the patient actually realized does not automatically insulate the surgeon from liability for medical malpractice.  Whether or not malpractice is indicated depends on the specific facts of each case.  However, complications involving brain damage, paralysis or death should be reviewed by an independent expert before the patient or family simply accepts the outcome as a known risk of the surgery and therefore not malpractice.

Patients who are contemplating surgical procedures should make efforts to minimize some of the potential complications from surgery.  These efforts should include discussing your prior medical history and current habits with your surgeon.  For instance a patient should make sure his or her surgeon knows the following:

  • Current and past medications
  • Alcohol intake
  • Whether the patient smokes
  • Allergies
  • Past surgical procedures
  • Current illiness or fever
  • Any illicit drug useage
  • Past issues with surgery

Any of the above mentioned issues may affect how your surgeon performs the procedure or precautions he takes to help the healing process.  In addition to informing your surgeon of these items, it is also important to follow your surgeon's instructions both before and after the surgery to minimize the risk of complications.  Such instructions may include specifics about wound care and the cessation of smoking.  Smoking is known to strongly inhibit the healing process.