A patient at the University of Southern California was given the wrong kidney earlier this month in a shocking hospital mix-up that resulted in the temporary suspension of USC’s transplant program. The error apparently occurred when two donor kidneys arrived at the hospital at about the same time. In a stroke of good fortune, the patient who received the kidney was unharmed because the donor kidney was the universally accepted type O. The patient for whom the kidney was actually intended received another donor kidney a few days later. The hospital blames human error, rather than a procedural problem, for the fiasco, though that explanation does little to ease the mind.

Although all patients involved managed to escape this scenario relatively unscathed, not everyone is always so lucky. Surgical error is a very real problem in our hospitals. Whether the cause is human error or a failure of procedure or protocol, the result is the same for the patient: he or she did not receive the treatment intended. Outcomes can range from unnecessary pain to catastrophic injury, as in the case of a wrong-site surgery.

In some cases, taking an active role in your surgical planning can help reduce the risk of injury. However, in cases such as the USC transplant mix-up, the patients were hapless victims of careless mistakes made by health care professionals.