Constructivist Grounded Theory to Establish the Relationship Between Technical Error and Adverse Patient Outcome: Modeling Technical Error and Adverse Outcomes

Am Surg. 2020 Nov 10;3134820952837. doi: 10.1177/0003134820952837. Online ahead of print.


Background: Preventable intraoperative errors have the potential to lead to adverse events. Our objective was to build a conceptual model of the relationship between minute technical errors performed by the surgeon and adverse patient outcomes.

Materials and methods: We used constructivist grounded theory methodology to build a model for the avoidance of technical errors. We used the Observational Clinical Human Reliability Assessment system, which categorizes granular, technical intraoperative errors, as our conceptual framework. We iteratively interviewed surgeons from multiple adult and pediatric surgical specialties, refined our semi-structured interview, and developed a conceptual model. Our model remained stable after interviewing 11 surgeons, and we reviewed it with earlier interviewed surgeons.

Results: Our conceptual model helps us understand how technical errors can be associated with adverse outcomes and is applicable to a broad range of surgical steps. Each technical error is defined by a unique improper technical motion that without a compensatory response, it may lead to 1 or more discreet adverse outcomes. Our model includes 5 primary defenses against an adverse outcome, including perfect technique, recognizing imperfect technique, adequately correcting imperfect technique, recognizing an adverse event, and adequately compensating for an adverse event. It includes multiple examples of compensating for a technical error, resulting in a near miss.

Discussion: Our conceptual model suggests that adverse patient outcomes can be related to minute technical deviations in surgical technique and provides a basis to study these preventable errors. Our model can also be used to develop intraoperative strategies to prevent these technical surgical errors.

Keywords: adverse events; adverse outcomes; medical education; patient safety; qualitative research; surgery; surgical errors.