Doctors removes cancer patient's one healthy kidney by mistake

Doctors at Methodist Hospital made a mistake when they removed a cancer patient's only healthy kidney, hospital officials said Monday.

Executives with Park Nicollet Health Services, which operates the suburban hospital, said they were making the error public because it's the right thing to do.

"This is a tragic error on our part and we accept full responsibility for this," said Dr. Samuel Carlson, chief medical officer for Park Nicollet.

Surgeons removed the patient's healthy kidney last week, believing it had a cancerous tumor. But the crucial error happened several weeks earlier when the kidney on the wrong side was identified on the patient's medical charts as potentially cancerous, Carlson said.

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"This is a tragic error on our part and we accept full responsibility for this."

"The discovery that this was the wrong kidney was made the next day when the pathologist examined the material and found no evidence of any malignancy," Carlson said.

Hospital officials apologized to the patient and family, and "are working closely with them to support them in every way we can," he said.

The patient has chosen to remain at Methodist for follow-up care. Because of privacy laws and the family's request, Park Nicollet was not releasing other details about the patient, not even if the error involved a man or woman, adult or child.

The surgeon involved voluntarily stepped aside from any treatment of patients while the hospital conducts a "root cause analysis." No other staff member has been removed from duty.

Carlson said new procedures were put into place Monday requiring the surgical team to verify sites using diagnostic imaging before an operation begins.

Hospital officials would not say what treatment the patient is now getting or discuss what effect the error may have on the patient's chances of recovery.

But they said that when a patient has only one kidney that may be cancerous, you either try to save it and beat the cancer, or you have to remove it and start dialysis or consider a transplant. In some cases, Carlson said, cancer could make someone ineligible for a transplant.

Carlson said many hospital staffers were taking it hard. It had been a point of pride at Methodist Hospital that Gov. Tim Pawlenty came to it four years ago to sign a bill requiring that hospital errors to be reported to the state.

Twenty-four wrong-site surgeries were reported to the Minnesota Department of Health between October 2006 and October 2007. Two were at Methodist, but Carlson said they were relatively minor compared with last week's error: a needle biopsy on the wrong lung, and a diagnostic exam of the wrong bronchial tube.

Kathleen Harder, a University of Minnesota researcher, said medical errors of this magnitude are rare but do happen.

"They remove the wrong ovary, take off the wrong leg," she said.

Many hospitals have stepped up efforts to catch errors in the operating room. But as in this case, she noted, the problem can occur long before the operation begins.

"It's wrong in the chart ... and that sets it up for a train wreck."