One in four patients with back surgery claim to have been damaged, with results ranging from pain to paralysis, according to a study by spinal surgeons.
Negligence complaints are so common that the Medical Defence Union, which insures doctors offering private operations, says it will no longer cover back surgery outside the NHS.
Leading surgeons are demanding the creation of a mandatory patient database so that action can be taken to identify patterns of error.
Lawyers say mistakes are leaving patients paralysed or suffering walking difficulties, incontinence and debilitating pain caused by nerve damage. The same mistakes are then repeated with other patients. Some law firms have set up departments dealing exclusively with back surgery.
A team at Salford spinal surgery unit, one of the biggest in Europe with 2,200 operations a year, is calling for a database after its survey of more than 900 UK operations showed that one in four patients believed they had suffered complications, while surgeons reported a complication rate of 4.6%.
Further investigations showed the true complication rate was 15.2%, about one in seven, including serious post-operative problems.
Naveed Yasin, a consultant spinal surgeon at Salford who led the study, which was reported to the British Association of Spine Surgeons and is being published in full later this year, said there was no single registry of spinal operations and many may not be properly recorded.
“Outcome measurements are controversial, but we need them. We compare outcomes [in our hospital] with European averages. If you don’t do them, how do you know if you’re a good or bad surgeon?” he asked.
Raquel Siganporia, who became a medical negligence lawyer after herself being left in a wheelchair after botched spinal surgery aged 11, said she was handling 20 claims.
Siganporia, whose injury was caused during surgery to correct a curved spine, said she recently settled a case for a young girl who suffered an identical error to the one that led to her disability.
“What’s most worrying is that people don’t seem to learn from their mistakes,” she said. “If you have spinal surgery, there’s always a risk of nerve damage or paralysis, but sometimes surgeons don’t realise they have made a mistake. There is a window of opportunity to put it right after the operation and after that it’s too late.”
Richard Lodge, a specialist at law firm Kingsley Napley, who is handling five big claims including total post-operative paralysis, said he also saw the same mistakes again and again: “Botched spinal surgery is now the second biggest legal drain on the NHS after damage caused by childbirth.”
Last month the government was warned that medical negligence costs would rise from £1.5bn to £2.6bn a year by 2022.
Melanie Prendiville, 75, a retired mortgage broker from Northampton, fears she will never recover from a spinal operation two years ago carried out by Shabin Joshi, an NHS surgeon, working at the private Woodland Hospital in Kettering.
“I can’t believe what has happened to me,” she said. “There is no way I would have consented to this. My legs were completely dead after the surgery, I couldn’t stand without help and the pain was unbearable.”
Joshi did not respond to requests for comment. The hospital declined to comment. The General Medical Council is investigating.