Burnt On The Operating Table

Published: April 25th, 2022

7 min read

The Times report this week about the hidden risks of burns on the operating table.

'Hidden' risk of patients burnt on operating table | News | The Times

The normal risks of anaesthesia and surgery are not the only ones that patients face in operating theatres. The possibility of fire or explosions is ever present and constitutes almost as much risk to staff as it does to patients

Many combustible materials, including alcohol, cotton fabric, wood and rubber, are all present in the operating theatre. Lasers, ESUs, and high-speed drills can create incandescent sparks that can jump off the tissue target and ignite specific fuels, resulting in complete combustion when there is an ideal proportion of fuel and oxygen, which is defined in medical terms as a stoichiometric mixture. The presence of highly flammable substances makes the operating theatre a potential and significant fire hazard.

Whilst such incidents may be thought to be extremely rare, recent statistics gathered, following a Freedom of Information Act search, have highlighted that between 2008 - 2018, nearly 14 million pounds has been paid out in compensation and legal fees by Hospital Trusts across the UK, to patients who have suffered burns whilst asleep on the operating table. During this period, despite 459 reported incidents where patients were allegedly burnt during surgery, only 37 were formally recorded by the NHS, prompting MP's to call for it to be a legal requirement for a surgical fire involving a patient to be reported by a NHS Hospital.

Democratic Unionist Party's health spokesman Jim Shannon MP, said

"It should be a legal requirement for all surgical fires involving a patient to be reported by an NHS Hospital. How can it be possible that it is not mandatory to report, when someone is set alight during surgery? Britain is lagging behind other countries around the World. The hidden data held by Trusts and Health Boards suggests that the issue is bigger than many people imagine".

Between 2004 - 2011, only 13 surgical fires were identified in official data compiled by the NHS, yet between 2009 - 2019, NHS Resolution dealt with 631 clinical negligence claims relating to surgical burns to patients.

A recent Association for Perioperative Practice (AFPP) survey, also revealed that almost half its members had personally witnessed a surgical fire, with two thirds reporting that their organisations were failing to provide training courses on the issue.

Lindsay Keeley, the patient safety and quality spokeswoman for the Association for Perioperative Practice (AFPP), said:

"The prevention of surgical fires is an urgent and serious safety issue that demands greater prioritisation."

Accidental burn injuries during surgery may occur as a result of electrical current, thermal injury, chemical irritation, and mechanical stress. If not immediately detected they can be severe, destroying the upper (epidermis) and lower (dermis) layers of the patient's skin, and even extending into the fat and muscle tissues below. A 3rd-degree burn may destroy the skin's sweat glands, hair follicles and nerve-endings, causing potential permanent nerve, muscle, or skin damage.

Like all medical professionals, surgeons have a legal obligation to provide an acceptable level of care towards their patients. This means they must display a standard of competence considered reasonable by a responsible body of medical practitioners. They must perform the operation with adequate skills and expertise. If they fail to do so, by using a poor technique when applying a diathermy to the skin, a patient will sustain an injury.

If you have suffered a burn during surgery for any of the aforementioned reasons, it may be that the surgeon and/or the NHS Trust are to blame. To ascertain whether or not you have a case, you need to discuss the details of your treatment with a medical negligence solicitor, who will have the necessary knowledge to advise if you have been the victim of a substandard level of medical care. If you have, you will be entitled to take legal action against the responsible party, meaning you could be awarded compensation for the damages you have incurred.

Forbes Solicitors have an experienced Clinical Negligence Team dealing with all aspects of personal injury on a no win, no fee basis.

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