Wrong Dye Injected into Spine During Surgery

By Kim Smiley

In the high stress, fast paced operating room environment, high consequence errors can and do happen, but the risk can be reduced by analyzing medical errors and improving standard work processes.  A recent case where a woman died unexpectedly after a routine procedure to insert a pump underneath her skin to administer medication offers many potentially useful lessons.  The wrong dye was injected into her spine during the surgery, which is the type of error that should be entirely preventable.

A Cause Map, or visual root cause analysis, can be used to analyze this issue.  To build a Cause Map, all causes that contribute to the issue are visually laid out to show the cause-and-effect relationships.  The general idea is to ask “why” questions to determine ALL the causes (plural) that contributed to the problem, and not focus the investigation on a single root cause because this allows a wider range of solutions to be considered.

So why did the wrong dye get injected into the patient?  The dye was injected because it was used during the surgery to verify the location of tubing that was threaded into the patient’s spine and the wrong dye was used.  The surgeon needed the dye to verify the location because the tubing was inserted during the surgery and it was difficult to see. The tubing was part of a pump that was being stitched under the patient’s skin to administer medication directly to the spine to treat symptoms from a back injury.  The patient had broken several vertebrae during a fall.

And now on to the meatier part of the discussion in regard to medical error prevention – why was the wrong dye used? The request for medication (dye) was given orally by the doctor to the nurse who passed it along to the pharmacy so it is possible that the pharmacist missed that the dye was intended for use in the spine.  The exact point where the work process breakdown occurred wasn’t clear in the media reports, but it is known that there were several checks in the process that failed for this type of error to occur.

Following this incident, the hospital did make changes in their work process to help reduce the likelihood of a similar error occurring.  The hospital now uses detailed written orders for medications except in emergencies when that isn’t possible.  The written order includes information about how the medication will be administered, which would have clarified that the dye was intended for use in the spine in this case.