Alleged Radiology Misreading Results in Removal of Cancer Patient’s Healthy Kidney

By ThinkReliability Staff

On January 17, 2013, a radiologist discussed the results of a CT scan with an urologist.  The CT scans identified cancer in the kidney of an urologist’s patient.  Two months later, the patient underwent surgery to remove the kidney.  The kidney was examined by a pathologist, who declared it cancer-free.  The wrong kidney had been removed, allegedly due to a misidentification by the radiologist.

Wrong-site surgeries like this one can lead to severe patient safety consequences, as well as severe financial and regulatory consequences for the doctors and healthcare facilities involved.  This is why surgery performed on the wrong body part has been identified as a “never event“, or an event that should never occur in a healthcare facility.

Even with this designation and the known seriousness of the issues, wrong-site surgeries continue to occur.  The Joint Commission estimates that the prevalence of wrong-site surgeries in the United States is as high as 40 per week.

Clearly, action must be taken to reduce the risk of wrong-site surgeries.  To identify areas of potential improvement, it can help to look at an example of an actual case of wrong-site surgery to determine lessons learned.  We will examine the case of the wrong kidney being removed as an example of issues that can lead to wrong-site surgeries using the Cause Mapping method of root cause analysis.

It’s important to identify the impacts to the goals as a result of an incident.  In this case, the patient safety goal was clearly impacted as the patient now has only 3/4 of a kidney remaining, with the potential to cause serious health impacts.  (A portion of the cancerous kidney was removed in a later operation.)  The compliance goal is impacted because of the occurrence of a “never event” as discussed above.  The patient services goal is impacted due to the removal of the wrong (healthy) kidney.  The radiologist and urologist involved in the issue have been sued for more than $1 million as a result of the issue.  If all these issues received similar lawsuits, the costs to the health system would be over $2B a year.

Once the impacts to the goals are identified, asking “why” questions develops the cause-and-effect relationships that led to the issue.  In this case, the removal of the wrong kidney is alleged to have resulted from the radiologist misreading the CT scan that identified the kidney with cancer and passing that information on to the urologist who performed the surgery.  Clearly the urologist’s physical exam (if any) did not adequately determine the site of the cancer.

To better understand the steps that led to the surgery, they can be diagrammed in a Process Map.  A Process Map lays out a process in much the same way that a Cause Map visually lays out cause-and-effect relationships.  A very high level overview of the process used in this case is shown on the downloadable PDF.  What’s important to note is that an incorrect reading of a CT scan or other diagnostic tool propagates through the process.  With no second opinions or double checks built in, the diagnosis of cancer in the left kidney was the only information the urologist had to determine the operating site.

There are of course other errors in the surgical preparation procedure that can also cause wrong-site surgeries.  (Many of these errors are identified in our proactive write-up on wrong-site surgeries.)  As stated by Mark R. Chassin, M.D., President of The Joint Commission, “Wrong site surgery events occur basically because none of the processes that we use in taking care of patients is perfect.”  Equally important is that the people performing the processes are not perfect.  Although both processes and people’s performance can be improved, it will never reach perfection.  For this reason, adding double checks and second opinions into processes is essential to reduce the risk of the one mistake resulting in a devastating patient safety impact.  In this case, having a second opinion on the CT scan, or having the physician re-identify the area with a physical exam prior to surgery (if possible) may have identified the error prior to removal of a healthy kidney.

View the Cause Map and process map by clicking on “Download PDF” above.