The current focus on medical errors isn't quite as new as it seems. A Johns Hopkins review of groundbreaking neurosurgeon Harvey Cushing's notes, made at the turn of the last century, has turned up copious documentation of his own surgical mishaps as well as his suggestions for preventing those mistakes in the future.
Authors of the article, published in the Feb. Archives of Surgery, suggest that such open documentation may have played an important role in spurring groundbreaking medical treatment advances in Cushing's era and could have the same effect today.
"Acknowledging medical errors is evidently something that doctors identified early on as critical to advancement a very long time ago," says principal author Katherine Latimer, B.S., a medical student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Latimer and her colleagues scoured Johns Hopkins' archives to locate operative notes covering 878 of Cushing's patients. The notes, transferred decades ago to microfilm, covered the early years of Cushing's career, from 1896 to 1912, at The Johns Hopkins Hospital. After deciphering the notesa monumental task, the authors say, owing to Cushing's poor handwriting, abbreviations, and pages crowded with notes of other physicians, toothe researchers selected 30 cases in which errors were clearly delineated.
The cases fell into categories of errors similar to those that plague doctors today, the authors said, classifying 11 of the cases as errors of judgment in which Cushing made the wrong choice during a surgery. One example: operating on the wrong side of a patient's brain. Seventeen cases were identified as "human error," mistakes in which Cushing revealed clumsy or careless behavior, such as dropping an instrument into a surgical wound. Three of the errors were considered equipment or tool oversights, such as the case in which a woman's heavy bleeding left Cushing and his colleagues without enough wax, a substance
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