If the idea of surgery makes you nervous, you certainly aren’t alone. Friends, relatives and doctors may try to allay your fears by telling you that surgical errors are very rare and that the chances of them happening to you are slim to none. Unfortunately, some of those errors are quite frequent, according to a study out of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

A mistake such as a doctor leaving a sponge or other surgical object inside a patient may sound like the stuff of TV sitcoms, but it actually happens about 39 times per week, according to the study. About 20 times a week a surgeon completes the wrong procedure — or it’s the right procedure, but on the wrong side of the body. These events are fears that many patients have, and those fears are almost always dismissed by those trying to calm the patient before surgery. But perhaps more of us should be making sure these “never events” aren’t constant problems.

The data for the study came from the National Practitioner Data Bank, which tracks medical malpractice claims nationwide. Hospitals are required to report malpractice claims that result in a settlement or judgment. These claims are not frivolous lawsuits, but those filed after serious and provable injury to a patient. The study’s researchers estimate that there are more than 4,000 never events each year in the United States. This could be a low estimate, however, because claims are only filed if the patient suffers noticeable effects from a surgical error. If no medical complications arise, an error may go unreported.

Many hospitals have instituted safety checks to avoid errors such as wrong-site surgery or foreign objects left inside a patient. These methods including counting sponges and towels before and after the operation, and using indelible ink to mark the part of the body being operated on.

Still, surgical errors do continue to happen. If they happen to you, you have the right to seek both a remedy and financial compensation through a medical malpractice lawsuit. Not only will a successful claim provide you with what you need to recover, but reporting the incident could put further pressure on hospitals nationwide to institute better policies for error prevention.

Source: Infection Control Today, “Johns Hopkins Malpractice Study Reveals Surgical ‘Never Events’ Occur at Least 4,000 Times Annually,” Dec. 19, 2012