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How does stress affect surgical errors?

A recent study by Columbia University found that stress can increase the likelihood a surgeon makes an error by up to two-thirds.

The study is limited, as it only looked at one surgeon, yet it is important as it suggests stress plays a massive role in surgical error.

The operation is not the only source of stress in an operating theater

A certain amount of pressure to perform is beneficial, as you do not want a surgeon being too relaxed and not paying attention. Yet, the study suggests reducing stress would help reduce errors.

Reducing the stress of a life-threatening situation would be difficult. However, the study found many stressors came from the immediate environment rather than the operation.

Think about an operating theater. The surgeon is not alone in the room. There are other medical colleagues, any of whom may have a phone or other electronic device, which sounds because someone needs to communicate with them urgently. The room will also have machines, many of which sound to alert staff to a change in the patient.

Now think about the last time you tried to focus intently on an intricate manual and cognitive task such as mending a small item or applying the final touch of paint to an artwork. How would the microwave pinging, your cellphone ringing or someone asking you the time have affected your concentration and ability to complete the task?

The study makes the association between distraction and stress clear. Therefore, hospitals and medical staff need to reduce unnecessary distractions in the operating theater to allow surgeons to concentrate on the task at hand. Failing to do so will needlessly put lives at risk.