World Journal of Surgery

, Volume 32, Issue 6, pp 1176–1182

Applying Modern Error Theory to the Problem of Missed Injuries in Trauma

  • D. L. Clarke
  • J. Gouveia
  • S. R. Thomson
  • D. J. J. Muckart



Modern theory of human error has helped reduce the incidence of adverse events in commercial aviation. It remains unclear whether these lessons are applicable to adverse events in trauma surgery. Missed injuries in a large metropolitan surgical service were prospectively audited and analyzed using a modern error taxonomy to define its applicability to trauma.


A prospective database of all patients who experienced a missed injury during a 6-month period in a busy surgical service was maintained from July 2006. A missed injury was defined as one that escaped detection from primary assessment to operative exploration. Each missed injury was recorded and categorized. The clinical significance of the error and the level of physician responsible was documented. Errors were divided into planning or execution errors, acts of omission or commission, or violations, slips, and lapses.


A total of 1,024 trauma patients were treated by the surgical services over the 6-month period from July to December 2006 in Pietermaritzburg. Thirty-four patients (2.5%) with missed injuries were identified during this period. There were 29 men and 5 women with an average age of 29 years (range: 21–67 years). In 14 patients, errors were related to inadequate clinical assessment. In 11 patients errors involved the misinterpretation of, or failure to respond to radiological imaging. There were 9 cases in which an injury was missed during surgical exploration. Overall mortality was 27% (9 patients). In 5 cases death was directly attributable to the missed injury. The level of the physicians making the error was consultant surgeon (4 cases), resident in training (15 cases), career medical officer (2 cases), referring doctor (6 cases).


Missed injuries are uncommon and are made by all grades of staff. They are associated with increased morbidity and mortality. Understanding the pattern of these errors may help develop error-reduction strategies. Current taxonomies help in understanding the error process, but efforts must be made to develop innovative mechanisms that reduce the potential for error.


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Copyright information

© Société Internationale de Chirurgie 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  • D. L. Clarke
    • 1
  • J. Gouveia
    • 1
  • S. R. Thomson
    • 1
  • D. J. J. Muckart
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of General Surgery, Nelson R. Mandela School of MedicineUniversity of Kwa-Zulu NatalDurbanSouth Africa

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