Medical Negligence in Post-Operative Treatment

Even when surgery goes well, mistakes made during post-operative care can put the patient at great risk of illness, injury, or death.

Medical negligence in post-operative care can prolong recovery, expose patients to infection, and may even result in death. A care provider’s duty to act in a non-negligent manner does not end once an operation is completed. Appropriate post-operative care is often the final component necessary for a successful procedure. When health care providers fail to comply with the standard of care in the post-operative period, it could give rise to a viable medical malpractice claim.

Read on to learn more about medical negligence in post-operative care.

What is Post-Operative Care?

The post-operative care period begins when you leave the operating room, and it ends when your doctor or surgeon no longer needs to follow-up on the effects of the procedure. Obviously, there is no hard-and-fast rule here; the post-operative care period varies from case to case.

Procedures such as appendectomies or vasectomies require relatively little post-operative care. Other surgeries, including heart surgery, brain surgery and even some complex elective surgeries such as liposuction or rhinoplasty, require post-operative care that could continue for weeks or months.

It is important to note that post-operative care can encompass a wide variety of medical monitoring, tests and consultations. During post-operative care, a health care provider must monitor your condition to ensure that infection does not set in, that you don’t do anything that could jeopardize the success of your surgery, and that the procedure itself was, in fact, successful. This can involve anything from repeated X-rays to prescription drugs to additional procedures.

Post-Operative Care and the "Medical Standard of Care"

In medical negligence cases, a health care professional has a legal duty that is defined as the medical standard of care. A care provider's liability follows when there is a breach of the standard of care that directly results in an injury.

The medical standard of care is the level of care that a similarly-skilled health care provider -- with the same level of education, in the same geographic area, and under same or similar circumstances -- would provide. In any given surgical procedure, the standard of care includes the appropriate post-operative care. Deviating from the standard of care post-operation can result in liability for medical negligence.

The standard of care, in surgical cases, generally encompasses three phases: pre-operative consultation, the operation itself, and post-operative care. A breach of the standard of care at any phase can trigger potential liability. In the case of post-operative care, health care providers are charged with ensuring that adequate measures are taken to prevent infection or other complications. This is often a matter of monitoring a patient’s status -- either on in-patient or outpatient basis.

For more on the legal issues involved, see Medical Negligence: The Law Explained.

Infection

The single most common result of negligent post-operative care is infection. When health care providers breach the standard of care in a post-operative situation, it is very easy for infection to set in. After any surgery -- no matter how minor -- the body is vulnerable to infection. Even the most “non-invasive” procedures can result in major complications if a patient’s vital signs, blood work, and other indicators are not closely monitored.

In a hospital environment, serious infections such as staph infections/MRSA or other bacterial infections such as pneumonia can dramatically compromise a patient’s health, endangering not only the success of the procedure that was performed, but the patient’s life as well. Sterile environments, regular cleaning of surgical sites/wounds and regular changing of bandages are all key parts of post-operative care, and hospitals and nurses could find themselves facing liability if infection sets in due to a failure to follow proper procedure.

It is essential that patients be monitored post-operatively. Modern medicine has developed innumerable tests that allow health care providers to identify and treat potential infections. The standard of care demands that these indicators and tests be monitored and administered, and failure to do so is a serious breach.

Blood Clots

While infection is the most common result of negligent post-operative care, blood clots are a close second. In many surgeries, patients are forced to lie in a prone position for hours, and the recovery process can take days. Patients may not be ambulatory, so it is essential that post-operative care includes measures designed to prevent blood clots in the legs. Health care providers must administer preventative measures such as compression stockings, prescription drugs, or mild exercise in a timely fashion. Failure to do so could result in deep vein thrombosis, pulmonary embolism, heart attack or stroke. All of these could result in permanent debilitating injury, or death.

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