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Hospitals Mess Up Medications in Surgery—a Lot

Half of all operations involved some kind of drug error in a study at an elite medical center.

About half of all surgeries involve some kind of medication error or unintended drug side effects, if a new study done at one of America’s most prestigious academic medical centers is any indication.

The rate, calculated by researchers from the anesthesiology department at Massachusetts General Hospital who observed 277 procedures there, is startlingly high compared with those in the few earlier studies. Those studies relied mostly on self-reported data from clinicians, rather than directly watching operations, and found errors to be exceedingly rare.

“There is a substantial potential for medication-related harm and a number of opportunities to improve safety,” according to the new study, published today in the journal Anesthesiology. More than one-third of the observed errors led to some kind of harm to the patient.

Attention has been focused on reducing medical errors since 1999. That’s when the Institute of Medicine identified them as a leading cause of death, killing at least 44,000 Americans a year—more than car crashes or breast cancer. Since then, hospitals have attempted to improve safety during surgery with simple checklists to avoid lapses like operating on the wrong side of the body. They’ve also switched to electronic prescribing systems that can warn doctors of potential medication errors.

But mistakes at the intersection of medication and surgery “have...