By Kim Smiley
In one of the most notorious medical error examples in US history, the wrong foot was amputated on a patient named Willie King on February 20, 1995. Both the hospital and surgeon involved paid hefty fines and the media had a feeding frenzy covering the dramatic and alarming mistake.
So how did a doctor remove the wrong foot? Such a mistake seems difficult to comprehend, but was it really as mind boggling as it looks at first glance?
The bottom line is that the doctor honestly believed he was removing the correct foot when he began the surgery. The blackboard in the operating room and the operating room schedule all listed the wrong foot because the scheduler had accidentally listed the wrong foot. After reading the incorrect paperwork, the nurse prepped the wrong foot. When the doctor entered the operating room, the wrong foot was prepped and the most obvious documentation listed the wrong foot. Basically, the stage was set for a medical error to occur.
The foot itself also looked the part. The patient was suffering from complications of diabetes and both of his feet were in bad shape. The “good” foot that was incorrectly removed looked like a candidate for amputation so there were no obvious visual clues it wasn’t the intended surgery site. Other doctors had testified in defense of the doctor saying the majority of other surgeons would have made the same mistake given the same set of circumstances.
There was some paperwork that listed the correct foot to be amputated, such as patient’s consent form and medical history. This paperwork was available in the operating room, but no procedures in place at the time required the doctor to check these forms and these forms were far less visual than the documents where the incorrect information was listed. Additionally, the doctor never spoke directly with the patient prior to the surgery which was another missed opportunity for the mistake to be caught.
Clearly the procedures needed to be changed to prevent future wrong site surgeries from occurring and a number of changes have been incorporated in the time since this case occurred to help reduce the risk of this type of medical error. Surgeons in Florida are now required to take a timeout prior to beginning a surgery. During the time out they are required to confirm that they have the right patient, right procedure and right surgical site. This rule has been in place since 2004.
Mistakes will always happen, such as numbers being transposed or misheard words over the phone, but small mistakes need to be caught before they become big problems. Procedures like a timeout can significantly reduce the likelihood of an error going uncorrected. In an ideal world, the simple mistake by the scheduler would have been caught long before it culminated in a surgery on the wrong body part.
A visual root cause analysis, called a Cause Map, can be built to illustrate the facts of this case. A Cause Map intuitively lays out the cause-and-effect relationships including all the causes that contributed to an issue. To view a Cause Map of this example, click on “Download PDF” above.