Safe Surgery and Anesthesia

Formerly Position Statement Number 2.15 

Ensuring safe surgical and anesthesia care for every patient is a primary objective of Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists (CRNAs). The purpose of this statement is to promote CRNA involvement in pre-procedure briefings, checklist implementation, transfer of care, and ongoing communication among the surgical team members.

The American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA) has endorsed processes described by external organizations for the purpose of promoting safe surgery and anesthesia. These include the World Alliance for Patient Safety "Safe Surgery Saves Lives" initiative of the World Health Organization (WHO), the WHO Surgical Safety Checklist,1 and The Joint Commission’s Universal Protocol.2 The "Safe Surgery Saves Lives" initiative aims to improve surgical safety in all settings, using the Surgical Safety Checklist to standardize the process. The Universal Protocol was designed to mitigate the occurrence of wrong site, wrong patient, and wrong procedure errors by using pre-procedure verification, site marking, and time-out components.

There are many elements to safe surgery and anesthesia, including:

  • Ensuring execution of the correct procedure at the correct site on the correct patient at the correct time.
  • Being adequately prepared for the planned and back-up anesthetic, including potential patient responses.
  • Promoting collaboration and communication between the patient and all healthcare team members.
  • Creating contingency plans to mitigate potential incidents or adverse events.
  • Reporting and systematic review of incidents or adverse events.
  • Advocating for the patient.

The incidence of perioperative errors that lead to unsafe surgery experiences is difficult to determine.3-7 These events may occur infrequently, but patients and practitioners agree that even one error is too many. The rare incidence of surgical errors, such as wrong site surgery, makes it difficult to determine all influencing factors involved; however, multi-factorial human error has been posed as a leading cause of surgical errors.8, 9 Surgical errors have been associated with incomplete information, poor professional communication, lack of teamwork,9-11 inexperience, and fatigue.9  Current evidence does not support a single approach for assuring a safe, error-free, beneficial experience for every patient.10-12  The literature suggests that collaboration between healthcare team members fosters improved outcomes.12, 13 By implementing a collaborative approach, all assigned healthcare members become involved and share responsibility for ensuring a safe surgical experience.  

Ensuring safe surgery begins prior to the induction of anesthesia and skin incision. A delineated, consistent, and standardized set of behavioral interventions accompanied by a compliance monitoring program have been promoted as effective measures in promoting safe surgery and anesthesia.13, 14 Such interventions may include preoperative briefings, pre-procedure verification processes, and site markings.13, 14 In addition, anesthesia professionals should confirm the availability and operability of all anesthesia equipment and drugs prior to the induction of anesthesia.1 Preoperative briefings have been shown to be an effective tool in promoting teamwork between anesthesia and surgical team members.12, 15 Briefings can improve care coordination and reduce the risk of near misses or wrong site surgery.12, 16, 17 Many pre-procedure verification processes can be standardized by the use of a checklist. It has been shown that implementation of a pre-procedure checklist has been associated with a decrease in postoperative complication rates,7, 18 raises awareness of potential safety issues,19 increases clinical team communication,19, 20 and does not pose a significant delay in surgical start times.19, 21  

Anesthesia professional involvement in the transfer of care can aid in minimizing postoperative errors.16, 22, 23 Prior to the transfer of care from the procedural setting, anesthesia professionals should review the key concerns for the recovery and management of the patient.1 Transfer of patient care between healthcare providers is a critical time for the exchange of essential patient information.  Best practice elements for an effective transfer of care should include:22, 24  

  • Two-way verbal exchange, preferably face-to-face, in which the transferring and receiving providers are actively engaged;
  • A nonhierarchical culture of open communication;
  • A location free of distractions and interruptions;
  • Development of and adherence to facility policy, which may define expectations for transfer of care and professional accountability.  

Recent reports indicate that anesthesia professionals contribute to near misses related to surgery.  After reviewing 433,528 reports from the Pennsylvania Patient Safety Reporting System (PA-PSRS) from 2004-2006, the reviewers categorized 427 near misses related to surgery.11 Specific to anesthesia, potential near misses involved 20 cases of patient positioning and 29 cases related to anesthesia interventions. In addition, a formal time-out was not performed in 26 cases involving local anesthetics or nerve blocks. It is recommended that regional anesthesia and pain management procedures also undergo a pre-procedure verification process.25-27    

Facilities may adopt various evaluation strategies to proactively and retrospectively monitor and review incidents or adverse events. For example, failure mode effect analysis is a proactive risk management strategy for potential error identification and reduction.28 If an adverse event or incident occurs, it is recommended that facilities use a retrospective analysis technique, such as root-cause analysis, to conduct an objective evaluation of the factors which lead to the error.29 The AANA believes that CRNAs should participate in ongoing quality improvement initiatives related to surgery and anesthesia care in order to enhance the quality of care delivered.  

An organization’s mission, service lines, healthcare provider mix, and unique patient population may influence the choice and implementation methods of the practices described. A critical component of safe anesthesia care is the involvement of a CRNA. CRNAs should be active participants in the entire pre-surgical verification process (e.g., checklists, preoperative briefings), structured transfers of care, and encouraging a culture of open communication among all healthcare team members to foster safe surgical and anesthesia care for patients. 


  1. WHO Guidelines for Safe Surgery. World Alliance for Patient Safety. World Health Organization. 2008; Published June 2008. Accessed May 18, 2012.
  2. Universal Protocol. The Joint Commission. Accessed May 18, 2012.
  3. To err is human: building a safer health system. In: Kohn L, Corrigan, J, Donaldson, M, ed. Institue of Medicine. Washington, DC: National Academy Press; 1999: Accessed May 18, 2012.
  4. Sentinel Event Alert, Issue 6: Lessons Learned: Wrong Site Surgery. The Joint Commission. 1998; Accessed May 18, 2012.
  5. Sentinel Event Alert, Issue 24: A Follow-up Review of Wrong Site Surgery. The Joint Commission. 2001; Accessed May 18, 2012.
  6. Jhawar BS, Mitsis D, Duggal N. Wrong-sided and wrong-level neurosurgery: a national survey. J Neurosurg Spine. Nov 2007;7(5):467-472.
  7. de Vries EN, Prins HA, Crolla RM, et al. Effect of a comprehensive surgical safety system on patient outcomes. N Engl J Med. Nov 11 2010;363(20):1928-1937.
  8. van Wagtendonk I, Smits M, Merten H, Heetveld MJ, Wagner C. Nature, causes and consequences of unintended events in surgical units. Br J Surg. Nov 2010;97(11):1730-1740.
  9. Gawande AA, Zinner MJ, Studdert DM, Brennan TA. Analysis of errors reported by surgeons at three teaching hospitals. Surgery. Jun 2003;133(6):614-621.
  10. Gibbs VC. Patient safety practices in the operating room: correct-site surgery and nothing left behind. Surg Clin North Am. Dec 2005;85(6):1307-1319, xiii.
  11. Clarke JR, Johnston J, Finley ED. Getting surgery right. Ann Surg. Sep 2007;246(3):395-403, discussion 403-395.
  12. Makary MA, Mukherjee A, Sexton JB, et al. Operating room briefings and wrong-site surgery. J Am Coll Surg. Feb 2007;204(2):236-243.
  13. Kwaan MR, Studdert DM, Zinner MJ, Gawande AA. Incidence, patterns, and prevention of wrong-site surgery. Arch Surg. Apr 2006;141(4):353-357; discussion 357-358.
  14. Haynes AB, Weiser TG, Berry WR, et al. A surgical safety checklist to reduce morbidity and mortality in a global population. N Engl J Med. Jan 29 2009;360(5):491-499.
  15. Ali M, Osborne A, Bethune R, Pullyblank A. Preoperative surgical briefings do not delay operating room start times and are popular with surgical team members. J Patient Saf. Sep 2011;7(3):139-143.
  16. Nagpal K, Vats A, Ahmed K, et al. A systematic quantitative assessment of risks associated with poor communication in surgical care. Arch Surg. Jun 2010;145(6):582-588.
  17. Einav Y, Gopher D, Kara I, et al. Preoperative briefing in the operating room: shared cognition, teamwork, and patient safety. Chest. Feb 2010;137(2):443-449.
  18. Paull DE, Mazzia LM, Wood SD, et al. Briefing guide study: preoperative briefing and postoperative debriefing checklists in the Veterans Health Administration medical team training program. Am J Surg. Nov 2010;200(5):620-623.
  19. Takala RS, Pauniaho SL, Kotkansalo A, et al. A pilot study of the implementation of WHO surgical checklist in Finland: improvements in activities and communication. Acta Anaesthesiol Scand. Nov 2011;55(10):1206-1214.
  20. Calland JF, Turrentine FE, Guerlain S, et al. The surgical safety checklist: lessons learned during implementation. Am Surg. Sep 2011;77(9):1131-1137.
  21. Mainthia R, Lockney T, Zotov A, et al. Novel use of electronic whiteboard in the operating room increases surgical team compliance with pre-incision safety practices. Surgery. Jan 11 2012.
  22. Clarke CM, Persaud DD. Leading clinical handover improvement: a change strategy to implement best practices in the acute care setting. J Patient Saf. Mar 2011;7(1):11-18.
  23. Smith AF, Mishra K. Interaction between anaesthetists, their patients, and the anaesthesia team. Br J Anaesth. Jul 2010;105(1):60-68.
  24. Knych SA. Handoffs and transitions in care: an inpatient perspective. Prescriptions for Excellence in Health Care. 2011(11).
  25. Cohen SP, Hayek SM, Datta S, et al. Incidence and root cause analysis of wrong-site pain management procedures: a multicenter study. Anesthesiology. Mar 2010;112(3):711-718.
  26. Nixon HC, Wheeler P. Wrong-site lower extremity peripheral nerve block: process changes to improve patient safety. Int Anesthesiol Clin. Spring 2011;49(2):116-124.
  27. Stanton MA, Tong-Ngork S, Liguori GA, Edmonds CR. A new approach to preanesthetic site verification after 2 cases of wrong site peripheral nerve blocks. Reg Anesth Pain Med. Mar-Apr 2008;33(2):174-177.
  28. Chiozza ML, Ponzetti C. FMEA: a model for reducing medical errors. Clin Chim Acta. Jun 2009;404(1):75-78.
  29. Wald H, Shojania, K.G. Chapter 5. Root Cause Analysis. Making Health Care Safer: A Critical Analysis of Patient Safety Practices. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; July 2001: Accessed May 21, 2012.

Adopted by AANA Board of Directors August 2009.
Revised by AANA Board of Directors August 2012.