This Week in Research: Gun Control and Surgery Mistakes

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Love ’em or hate ’em, you’ve gotta admit that the National Rifle Association (NRA) is good at what it does:  tenaciously defending Americans’ right to own guns (and lots of them). That’s because the NRA is the model of a successful advocacy association, according to Goucher College political scientist Nina Kasniunas.

Kasniunas’s research into interest groups’ effects on Congress shows that the richest and most visible of these groups (ahem, NRA) get increased access to Congress. But it’s not all complicated lobbying techniques, either; part of what makes the NRA so strong is its single issue solidarity. That’s bolstered by the staunch commitment of its members, which is promoted through things like stickers and t-shirts. “When they see the T-shirt, when they see the baseball hat that says the NRA, there’s kind of just like a wink and a nod — sure, you know, ‘We’re in this together. We are the NRA,’ ” Kasniunas told NPR this week.

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These are the things of CNN.com headlines/my nightmares:  surgeons who leave towels inside patients bodies; accidentally getting the wrong body part operated on; suffering permanent injury as the result of a botched procedure. These things are so bad that doctors refer to them as “never events” — as in, they should never happen.

But that doesn’t mean they don’t ever happen. According to recent research out of Johns Hopkins, more than 80,000 such events took place in U.S. hospitals between 1990 and 2010. That averages out to 39 weekly instances of “oops, I left this towel/sponge/whatever inside your body after that operation,” and 20 instances each of “oops I operated on the wrong body part” and “oops I did the wrong procedure.”

Surprisingly enough, it’s younger surgeons who seem to be making the mistakes. More than one-third of the “never events” studied were by surgeons in their 40s, while surgeons over 60 were responsible for only 14.4 percent.

“There are mistakes in health care that are not preventable. Infection rates will likely never get down to zero even if everyone does everything right, for example,” said Johns Hopkins surgeon Marty Makary, who led the study. “But the events we’ve estimated are totally preventable. This study highlights that we are nowhere near where we should be and there’s a lot of work to be done.”



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  1. “Surprisingly enough, it’s younger surgeons who seem to be making the mistakes.”

    Why is this surprising? Experience does matter. It is our youth-obsessed culture that assumes that people over 50 are doddering fools. Surgery is a skill, and people improve their skills with practice over time. Don’t be so biased in your judgments.

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