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What Is a “Never Event?”

A “never event” is a medical event that should never occur in a properly functioning medical facility. It is an event that causes serious harm or death to a patient despite being entirely preventable with routine medical protocols. If patients suffer harm due to never events, they may be able to recover financial compensation for all of their losses through a Philadelphia medical malpractice claim.

Never Event

Defining a “Never Event”

A never event in the medical field refers to a serious and preventable adverse event that should never occur in the course of proper medical care. Never events are medical errors that are considered wholly preventable. The occurrence of a never event suggests a significant failure in the health care system.

Never events have two main characteristics: preventability and serious harm. First, the medical error must have been preventable, meaning it should have been avoided with if the patient’s health care provider had exercised due care. Had the physician, nurse or another medical practitioner acted in accordance with the professional standard of care, the event would not have occurred.

The second characteristic is serious harm suffered by a patient. Never events are associated with patient outcomes that are severe and often life-threatening. In many cases, never events result in permanent harm, such as disability, amputation or organ damage. Sadly, patients can lose their lives due to never events.

Another term for “never events” is “sentinel events.”  This term is used by the Joint Commission on Hospital Accreditation, which accredits hospitals across the United States.

Effects of Never Events on Patient Outcomes

Never events can be physically and emotionally traumatic for patients. A never event can cause catastrophic harm, such as irreversible brain damage, other organ damage, nerve damage, paralysis, and significant scarring or disfigurement. It can also cause psychological harm, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, a phobia of doctors, and diminished quality or enjoyment of life. Finally, never events lead to higher patient mortality rates. A large percentage of never events result in patient fatalities.

Types of Never Events

Never events are among the the most egregious types of medical malpractice. Medical malpractice is defined as a health care provider violating the standards of care in the medical field and causing patient harm. Never events are so extreme that they are viewed as inexcusable examples of medical negligence.

Examples of never events include:

  • Surgical errors: wrong-site, wrong-patient or wrong-procedure mistakes. Performing a surgery or another invasive procedure on the wrong patient or body part can have permanent adverse effects. Another example is leaving a foreign object or tool behind in a patient’s body cavity.
  • Inadequate care: a substandard level of patient care that results in serious harm. Examples include patient neglect, failure to treat, premature patient discharge, medication errors, birth injuries and failure to make a timely cancer diagnosis.
  • Dangerous premises: adverse medical events due to a dangerous premises or inadequate patient care environment, such as contamination involving toxic substances, burns or electric shocks, or injuries from metal objects being introduced into an MRI area.
  • Criminal acts: intentional acts of wrongdoing that violate state or federal laws. Examples include sexual assault, physical assault or battery, abduction of a patient, or impersonating a licensed health care provider.

All of the above situations are medical events that should never happen in a safe, organized and properly operating health care setting. If a never event does occur, the at-fault medical provider or entity could be held legally and financially responsible (liable) for harm caused to the patient by his or her injury.

How Often Do Never Events Occur?

Never events are uncommon but not as rare as they should be. According to a study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a wrong-site surgical event may occur once every 5 to 10 years, on average, at a given facility. However, the never events that do occur have a high likelihood of inflicting fatal injuries. Around 71 percent of never events reported over a 12-period resulted in patient death.

An analysis of 367 medical reports involving never events found that the most frequently reported events were surgical errors, including operating on the wrong patient and body part and unintentionally leaving foreign objects behind. A 2013 study found that more than 4,000 surgical never events occur annually in the United States.

How Can Never Events Be Prevented?

While physicians are not expected to prevent all medical errors, they are under a legal obligation to use a certain standard of care. Physicians and other health care providers must deliver the highest quality care, free of egregious errors and acts of negligence. Any action or omission that falls short of this standard is considered medical malpractice.

Understanding and identifying never events can prompt important patient safety initiatives, such as efforts to improve the quality of patient care and resolve systemic issues that contribute to never events. One example of these systemic issues is physician burnout, which reached an all-time high (63 percent) during the COVID-19 pandemic (source: the American Medical Association).

Physician burnout refers to overworked and overburdened doctors who experience physical and mental fatigue due to their work conditions. While human factors are most often behind never events, mitigating serious medical errors and avoiding adverse patient outcomes usually requires addressing systemic issues.  The focus should be on improving medical processes to minimize the potential for error.

Seeking Justice and Financial Compensation as a Victim of a Never Event

If a patient sustains a serious injury or dies as a result of a never event, the victim or his or her family may be able to recover financial compensation through a medical malpractice claim. This type of civil lawsuit aims to hold a health care provider or entity liable for failing to meet the expected standard of patient care.

An experienced medical malpractice attorney can help you investigate, file and prove your never event claim. A lawyer can investigate the incident for evidence of medical negligence that resulted in the adverse event, including systemic issues. Then, your lawyer can seek maximum financial compensation for harm caused by your injury, such as for medical costs and pain and suffering.

For more information about pursuing a medical malpractice claim for a catastrophic never event, contact Youman & Caputo to schedule a free consultation with an attorney.