What You Need to Know About Anesthesia Malpractice
If you think about it, modern anesthesia is something of a miracle. It makes available procedures that would otherwise be incredibly painful (like tooth extraction) or nearly impossible (like open heart surgery). Anesthesiologists are among the most highly-paid medical specialties, and with good reason: their work requires incredible care and precision.
An error by an anesthesiologist can lead to death, permanent brain damage, cardiac issues, nerve damage, traumatizing pain, and more. In other words, negligence on the part of an anesthesiologist may be a form of medical malpractice.
Here are some things you need to understand about anesthesia and anesthesiology malpractice.
Types of Anesthesia
There are four categories of anesthesia:
- Local anesthesia, in which the patient remains alert and conscious while a small area of the body is numbed so a procedure can be performed. Local anesthesia is used for some dental procedures, stitches, mole removal, and similar procedures.
- Regional anesthesia numbs a larger area of the body than local anesthesia, and the patient remains alert and conscious. Epidural anesthesia administered during labor is one example of regional anesthesia
- Monitored sedation ranges from mild drowsiness to deeper sedation and is usually used for minimally-invasive procedures like cataract surgery and colonoscopy. Patients may be somewhat conscious during the procedure but unable to remember it afterward.
- General anesthesia renders the patient completely unconscious and is used for major surgeries such as joint replacement and cardiac surgery.
How Anesthesia Errors Occur
Unsurprisingly, the most serious anesthesia errors occur in the use of general anesthesia. Serious mistakes can occur during the surgical process, but anesthesia malpractice may begin before the procedure does.
The anesthesiologist’s work begins well before the surgery with a thorough review of the patient’s medical history and communication with the patient. If you have ever had surgery, you may have been dismayed at the instruction not to eat or drink for several hours before your scheduled procedure. These preoperative instructions are critical. If an anesthesiologist fails to communicate them to a patient, the patient may be unprepared for surgery and could, for example, aspirate food or liquid into their lungs. That could lead to aspiration pneumonia and decreased oxygen levels.
Reviewing the patient’s medical record is also a critical preoperative step for the anesthesiologist. Some patients have medication allergies or take medications that could interact with anesthesia medicines in a dangerous way. If an anesthesiologist overlooks these potential risks, the patient could suffer serious complications or even die from a preventable error.
Then, of course, there are anesthesiology errors that occur immediately before, during, or after a surgical procedure. These include errors intubating or extubating a patient—inserting or removing a breathing tube. General anesthesia causes temporary muscle paralysis, including of muscles that help patients to breathe, so a breathing tube is necessary
However, a breathing tube that is not properly situated can cause serious complications, like nerve damage, brain damage due to lack of oxygen, heart arrhythmia, stroke, paralysis of vocal cords, perforation of the trachea, and more. Dangers upon extubation include removal of the breathing tube before the patient is able to breathe on their own again.
Dosage errors are the type of anesthesia error that most people have heard of, and fear. If the anesthesiologist fails to calculate the proper dosage of medicine for a particular patient, or somehow administers an incorrect dose, the results can be disastrous. Too much anesthesia can result in organ damage, coma, or death.
Too little anesthesia, on the other hand, can cause the patient to be conscious during surgery, able to feel pain but unable to move or communicate. This condition, called “anesthesia awareness,” can also occur if anesthesia is administered too late. Anesthesia awareness may seem like a terrifying nightmare scenario and it can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other issues, including sleep disorders and persistent anxiety.
Monitoring is also an aspect of anesthesia care that can lead to a malpractice claim. To ensure that vital signs are stable during a procedure, the anesthesiologist must monitor the patient throughout. Inadequate monitoring can lead to a dangerous drop in blood oxygen or complications involving blood pressure, heart rate, and ventilation. There have also been incidents in which monitoring equipment was negligently turned off, causing medical professionals to be unaware that the patient’s vital signs were entering dangerous territory.
What to Do After an Anesthesia Error
All surgery involves the risk of complications, but some complications are severe and avoidable. If you have been the victim of an anesthesia error, or a loved one suffered serious injury because of an anesthesiologist’s negligence, you may be entitled to financial recovery. Especially if your injury was serious or permanent, you may need ongoing care or treatment. If you have a question about anesthesia errors or other surgical or medication errors, we invite you to contact Huegli Fraser to schedule a consultation.
The information in this blog post is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. You should not make a decision whether or not to contact a qualified medical malpractice attorney based upon the information in this blog post. No attorney-client relationship is formed nor should any such relationship be implied. If you require legal advice, please consult with a competent medical malpractice attorney licensed to practice in your jurisdiction.