Can a Surgical “Black Box” Lessen the Number of Preventable Medical Errors?

Surgical Black Box Lessen the Number of Medical Errors

The patient safety advocacy organization The Leapfrog Group published a report in 2014 that identified hospital errors as the third leading cause of death in the United States, after heart disease and cancer. This report estimates that up to 440,000 Americans die each year from preventable hospital errors.

A new idea that could help make it easier to identify exactly when and how surgeons make mistakes in surgery is being met with both anticipation and dread by surgeons. That idea is the “black box,” similar to the ones used in planes, which could record surgical procedures. Dr. Grantcharov, of St. Michaels’ Hospital in Toronto, Canada has already designed the black box as a teaching tool so that surgeons can study their surgical techniques and make necessary improvements that will affect patient outcomes.

The data collected from surgical black boxes could serve many purposes, including:

  • Aiding in medical malpractice investigations
  • Serving as evidence for a trial
  • Becoming training tools for residents and new doctors (with the express permission of the patient)
  • Providing explicit details for mortality and morbidity conferences
  • Increasing public confidence in existing institutions in Washington, D.C.

What our own legislators are doing to help

The seemingly skyrocketing number of preventable hospital errors and the demand for increased scrutiny for medical professionals has prompted legislators to introduce bills that would permit black box audio and video recordings in operating rooms. In Wisconsin, State Rep. Christine Sinicki (D-Milwaukee) has introduced Assembly Bill 255, the “Julie Ayer Rubenzer Law” (or the “Surgical Black Box Bill,” as it is sometimes known). If passed, this bill would give the patient the right to choose to have their surgery recorded on audio and video, and this data would be admissible in court. is the first bill of its kind in the United States, and it is shaping up to be the best example of patient safety reform in decades. Detractors may fear that patients could be filmed unwillingly, but requiring a patient’s permission in order to record the procedure should take care of the problem.

Surgical black boxes are an idea whose time has come. Something must be done to curtail the astronomical numbers of preventable medical errors that are causing injuries and death to hospital patients across the country. This new technology could help doctors in D.C. and in West Virginia improve the quality of their work, while giving patients and their families a record of what happened in the operating room in the event of a medical mistake.