Many surgery centers are not prepared to handle operating room emergencies

As a Houston, Texas medical malpractice lawyer, I have handled a lot of cases where the health care at issue was provided at a surgery center.

A recent lawsuit illustrates the patient safety problems that plague many surgery centers. The parents of a 12-year-old boy took him to a surgery center for a procedure to have his tonsils and adenoids removed. This routine procedure is performed on thousands of children every year, and I am sure that the parents expected to be in and out of the surgery center pretty quickly.

During the surgery, though, the boy had a reaction to the anesthetic medication, which caused him to go into cardiac arrest. Unlike a hospital, the surgical staff was not equipped to handle an emergency like this, so staff members called 911. When the paramedics arrived, they could not figure out who was in charge of resuscitation efforts, and raced to try to revive the boy.

Sadly, just over half an hour after the surgery center called 911, the boy was pronounced dead.

In the medical malpractice lawsuit, the parents allege that the surgery center and anesthesiologist were negligent by giving the boy a drug whose manufacturer’s label contains a warning about causing cardiac arrest in young boys.

Surgical center risks

There are now more than 5,600 surgery centers nationwide—that is more than the total number of hospitals. Surgery centers are unusual, from a regulatory perspective, in that physicians and surgeons can own the surgery centers and then refer their own patients to them.

In my view, this introduces a potential conflict of interest between the doctor and patient. Instead of referring a patient to a facility that could handle a procedure in the safest manner for the patient, there is the temptation for the doctor to send the patient to a facility in which he or she has an ownership interest.

The USA Today Network and Kaiser Health News conducted a nationwide investigation of surgery center death cases. They discovered that, since 2013, at least 260 patients died after routine procedures at surgery centers in the United States.

In my experience, surgery centers are typically not equipped to handle the myriad emergency situations that can occur during a surgery, operation, or procedure. In the many medical malpractice cases that I have handled, the two most common types of complications occur during surgery are respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest.

Considering how common respiratory and heart issues are during surgical procedures, some of the findings from the investigation are shocking and troubling. During their research, investigators found that one surgery center had empty oxygen tanks.  Another surgery center operating on children did not have a pediatric tracheotomy set to restore breathing if a young patient went into respiratory arrest. Yet another surgery center did not have defibrillator pads that are necessary to shock a heart back into a normal rhythm.

I was surprised that the anesthesia provider involved in caring for the 12-year-old boy I discussed above was an anesthesiologist physician, rather than a certified registered nurse anesthetist (CRNA). In most surgical center malpractice cases that I have reviewed or handled, a less-trained CRNA handled anesthesia during the patient procedure. When a patient goes into cardiac or respiratory arrest during surgery, I believe that the best person to manage the code response is typically an anesthesiologist. Even an anesthesiologist, though, needs appropriate support staff and equipment to support resuscitation efforts.

We are here to help

If you or a loved one has been seriously injured because of medical malpractice at a surgery center or other facility, contact the experienced medical negligence lawyers at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas, at 281-580-8800, for a free consultation about your potential case.


Robert Painter is an attorney at Painter Law Firm PLLC, in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical malpractice and wrongful death lawsuits against hospitals, surgical centers, surgeons, physicians, anesthesiologists, and other healthcare providers. In 2017, H Texas magazine recognized him as one of Houston’s top lawyers.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.