Ghost Surgery: Prevalence, Causes, and Dangers April 5, 2024.

Ghost Surgery: Prevalence, Causes, and Dangers

How would you feel if you came out of surgery and found out a surgeon you have never met performed it? You would probably feel blindsided and lose trust in your doctor. This unethical practice is called ghost surgery, and it is not a rare occurrence in hospitals.

What is Ghost Surgery?

Ghost surgery refers to when someone other than the surgeon you previously consented to performs your surgery. This switch usually happens while the patient is under anesthesia.

During ghost surgery other surgeons or residents perform parts of the operation, without the patient's knowledge. This practice is unacceptable.

Ghost surgery breaks the patient’s right to informed consent. Patients have to sign a consent form to allow the surgeon to operate on them. If another surgeon or resident is going to perform parts of the surgery, it has to be stated in the consent form. Patients may be able to file a  medical malpractice lawsuit if their surgeon breaks the consent agreement.

How Often Does Ghost Surgery Occur?

The true prevalence of ghost surgery is unknown. However, Dr. Michael Greger, a physician and author, estimates that “Between 50 to 85% of operations are carried out, not by surgeons, but surgeons in training called residents.” Of course, this is just an estimation, but it certainly raises our eyebrows as to how common ghost surgery is.

Determining the prevalence of ghost surgeries is challenging. This is because patients are usually unaware that other people were involved in their procedure. Surgery notes also typically don't include that others were involved, because of legal and ethical implications.

Causes of Ghost Surgery

Ghost surgery can be caused by surgeons and anesthesiologists booking multiple surgeries at once. Double or triple-booking surgeries should be prohibited, but many hospitals allow it. These surgeries are performed in adjoining operating rooms, so the surgeon and anesthesiologist can go from room to room. This threatens the quality of care given to each patient. As they move to other rooms, the patient's lives are left in the hands of someone they've never met.

Ghost surgery can also be caused by residents performing procedures, without the patient's consent. Residents work at teaching hospitals to gain valuable, hands-on experience. However, patients have to consent to the resident operating on them. Ideally, if the patient consented to it, an experienced surgeon would closely watch the resident and patient during the entire procedure.

But, many times patients will not consent to a resident operating on them. This leads to surgeons going behind their patient's back to allow residents to perform parts of the surgery.

Residents being unsupervised during surgery is a huge problem in the U.S. In fact, several teaching hospitals have been in lawsuits for ghost surgery in the past. One of the nation's largest teaching hospitals, Erlanger, allegedly had over 8,500 overlapping or unsupervised surgeries. Similar lawsuits were filed against Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Southern California.

What Are the Potential Dangers of Ghost Surgery?

During any surgery, there is a risk of complications. However, complication rates increase when inexperienced surgeons or residents operate on patients. There are many potential dangers when a patient is under anesthesia and is not properly monitored. Anesthesia is very complicated as is and errors can cause very bad outcomes.

Severe complications can occur if:

  • The patient is under anesthesia for too long
  • The anesthesia is administered incorrectly
  • The patient’s vitals drop and it goes unnoticed 
  • The patient is given too much or too little anesthesia.

Surgical errors are also more likely to occur when an inexperienced surgeon or resident performs procedures unsupervised. Surgical errors can potentially cause permanent damage to the patient.

Surgical errors include:

  • Wrong site surgery
  • Nerve damage
  • Puncturing an organ or artery
  • Leaving a foreign object in the body

Injuries can also occur if the surgeon leaves the operating room. This negligence puts the patient's lives in the hands of the resident or an inexperienced surgeon. Serious complications can arise if the procedure goes wrong and the ghost surgeon doesn't know what to do. We have sadly seen this happen first hand and the patient was left with permanent brain damage.

Questions to Ask Before Surgery

Let’s face it- ghost surgery is worrisome, even if you trust your surgeon. To get some peace of mind, you can always tell your surgeon your concerns or ask questions before the procedure. 

Questions that we recommend asking before surgery include:

  • Will you be the only surgeon performing my procedure?
  • Will you be present during the entire operation?
  • If you do leave, who is in charge of the surgery?
  • Are residents participating in the operating room?

Keep in mind that if you do not feel comfortable after asking these questions, you can always cancel your procedure.

How The Mellino Law Firm Can Help

We Have Handled Ghost Surgery Cases Before

In 1995, the son and husband of a 60-year-old woman, hired our firm to represent their loved one in a ghost surgery lawsuit. The woman, who was the victim of ghost surgery, will be referred to as our client throughout this section.

Our client went to an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) surgeon for what she thought was a sinus infection. The surgeon instead diagnosed her with a deviated septum and advised that she should have a septoplasty.

The surgeon said there would be other people working with him during the surgery, but did not disclose what his colleagues would be doing. Our client was never given a consent form and was under the impression that the surgeon she met would be doing the procedure.

On the morning of the surgery, the surgeon and anesthesiologist were scheduled to perform 4 surgeries in two adjoining operating rooms.

With 4 surgeries happening at the same time, the surgeon did not perform our client’s surgery. Instead, a resident of the ENT department did, without our client’s knowledge.

During the procedure, our client was intubated while under anesthesia to ensure adequate oxygen flow. Little did our client know that the anesthesiologist would not be the one intubating or extubating her.

When the procedure was over, our client was unresponsive. Despite being unresponsive she was extubated by a nurse anesthetist, and the anesthesiologist was not present during this time.

Our client went into cardiac arrest which caused permanent brain damage. For the rest of her life, she lived in a persistent vegetative state, where she had no cognitive awareness, was unable to care for herself, and was unable to communicate. Before this surgery, she was healthy and was expected to have a full life expectancy.

Though nothing could bring back their loved one from this tragedy, the family was awarded $14.6 million in damages.

Our Firm Focuses on Medical Malpractice Claims

Unlike many firms that cover several practice areas, our firm focuses on medical malpractice. For medical malpractice cases, you need an attorney who can dig below the surface to get all of the facts. Chris Mellino is highly respected in Northeast Ohio for doing just that. Throughout his career, Chris has fought for justice and fair compensation for the victims of medical malpractice. But, don't just take our word for it, check out our “Results” page to see some of our record-setting settlements and verdicts.

We are also very selective in the cases that we take. Our firm only takes cases that resulted in severe or debilitating injuries. By limiting the amount of cases we take, we can give each case the unique attention it deserves.

Contact Our Cleveland Office Today

If you believe you or a loved one was a victim of ghost surgery, we encourage you to call our Cleveland office at (440) 333-3800 or fill out our contact form. Our team will reach out to you as soon as possible to schedule your free consultation