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Surgical errors and stress: New study finds a connection

Medical errors are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States every year. A portion of these mistakes happen within the operating room. This statistic inspired a master’s student from Columbia University’s Data Science Institute to search for a resolution.

His question: does stress within the operating room impact the surgical outcome? The answer: a resounding yes.  

How much of an impact does stress have on surgical outcomes? According to the study, the impact is serious. A stressed-out surgeon will make almost 66 percent more mistakes on their patient compared to one that is not dealing with stress while in the operating room (OR).

Such mistakes can lead to allegations of malpractice and a need to defend one’s medical license. By reducing the risk of these mistakes, physicians can better protect their professional reputation.

How did the researcher find a connection between stress and surgical error? Researchers allowed in the OR to gather this data during elective surgical procedures like gastric bypass and peroral endoscopic myotomy procedures. During these procedures, the surgeon’s heart rate was monitored. This data was gathered using wearable technology — the surgeon wore a shirt designed to gather heartrate data for athletes to reduce the risk of interference while in surgery.

What constitutes “stress” in the operating room? During this study, stressful events included loud noises outside the OR and negative thoughts.

What types of mistakes? Surgical mistakes that resulted in increased bleeding or torn tissue damage. More specifically, tears from grasper slips, bleeding from a puncture to a vessel and burns from inadvertent contact.

What is the goal of the study? The researcher aims to decrease level of stress and reduce the percentage of adverse outcomes within the OR.

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