Patient Receives Unneeded Mastectomy

By ThinkReliability Staff

Information about a lab mix-up that resulted in a patient receiving an unnecessary mastectomy was recently released by a health authority in Nova Scotia, Canada.  The authority has conducted an investigation into the error and how it occurred.  We can look at some of the information that will need to be considered in order to reduce the risk of a similar issue recurring.

First, we capture the “What”, “When”, and “Where” of the incident.  In this case, a switch of pathology results occurred in late April, 2013 at a cancer center in Nova Scotia.  The error was caught as a result of oversight analysis of tissue samples.

We can capture the goals impacted as the result of the issue.  In this case, the patient safety goal was impacted because a patient (Patient 1) received an unnecessary surgery (mastectomy).  In addition, the patient safety goal was impacted because another patient (Patient 2) did not receive a necessary surgery.  The staff employees are impacted because they are reportedly devastated, as frequently happens in cases like these.  The organization goal is impacted due to the apology given to the public as a result of this issue.  The patient services goal is impacted due to a switch of the tissue samples.  The property goal is impacted because an unnecessary procedure was performed, and the labor goal is impacted due to the extensive investigation that is taking place.

Asking “Why” questions can help determine the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the impacted goals.  In this case, the patient safety impacts are due to the switching of the patient’s sampling.  This occurred due to the results being recorded into the wrong records.

While trying to solve a problem, it can be helpful to examine the related processes.  In this case, we look at the tissue sampling process.  Any process is meant to get from point A to point B. In this case, the process ideally takes us from a tissue sample being taken (point A) to a diagnosis (point B).  We know that we did not get to point B in this case (i.e. the diagnosis was incorrect).  Looking at the steps in more detail can help us determine which specific part of the process did not go as intended, which will allow us to identify process-specific solutions.

A sample is taken from a patient, labeled, and sent to the lab.  The lab tests the sample, obtains the results, then delivers them to the patient’s physician or care center.  At that point, the results are recorded in the patient’s records and then used to make a diagnosis.  The error reportedly occurred at the point where the results were entered into the patients’ records.

Once we’ve identified the specific point where the error occurred, we can identify potential solutions.  In this case, the facility involved is implementing bar-coding and moving towards an automated system.  Although there is still the potential for error, it is reduced with automated systems and bar codes because the data has to be transcribed fewer times. As the Premier of Nova Scotia stated, “Human error is always a possibility. But one of the things we strive for is to ensure there are appropriate controls in place to ensure that the risk of these things is absolutely minimized.”

To view the Cause Map and Process Map, please click “Download PDF”.