Although the majority of surgeries require some form of anesthesia, the use of anesthesia always carries some level of risk to the patient. For this reason, the administration of anesthesia must be carried out with great care and precision in conjunction with proper diagnosis and patient monitoring. Unfortunately, errors and subsequent complications do occur in some cases after patients receive anesthesia. The worst cases involve brain damage or death.
A number of studies have analyzed the number of injuries and deaths resulting from anesthesia errors in hospitals and surgery centers. One particular study that examined records from 1999 to 2005 found that errors pertaining to the administration of anesthesia caused 34 deaths and contributed to an additional 281 deaths. A more recent study from The Lancet reports “600 cases of anaesthetic deaths occurred from 2017 to 2021, yielding an incidence of 6.4 per 100,000 anaesthesia procedures…and most were preventable (71.3%).”
General anesthesia poses the greatest risks
Anesthesia is given to patients in three different ways: local, regional, and general anesthesia. Patients placed under general anesthesia are often subject to the highest risk. Under general anesthesia, the patient is put to sleep during surgery. Anesthesiologists will often relate to their patients the side effects to be expected from general anesthesia. However, they may not mention or dwell on the risks of brain damage or death. These risks are present even when anesthesia is administered for very routine or elective surgeries.
Anesthesia malpractice and brain damage
It is the job of an anesthesiologist to monitor vital indicators of the patient’s health during surgery. These include blood fluid levels, blood pressure, and other vital statistics. However, if the anesthesiologist is distracted, turns off alarm signals, leaves the patient’s room, or simply fails to adequately monitor the patient, disastrous results can occur. An anesthesiologists may also provide the wrong medication or too much of the right medication. Any form of negligence carried out by the anesthesiologist in the ways mentioned above, or otherwise, can leave the patient with oxygen deprivation, stroke, or other complications resulting in brain damage.
Particular types of anesthesia malpractice that can lead to brain damage include:
- Dosage errors. Administering too much or too little anesthesia can result in adverse effects. An overdose can lead to respiratory distress or cardiac arrest, while underdosing may result in the patient waking up during surgery (anesthesia awareness) or experiencing pain and distress.
- Not adequately monitoring the patient’s blood flow to the brain. As surgery proceeds, the brain requires a continual flow of oxygen-rich blood to ensure the brain cells remain alive. This is the primary job of the anesthesiologist during surgery. Negligence on the part of the anesthesiologist can cause the patient to lose blood fluid, reducing the flow of blood to the brain. Potential consequences to the patient are strokes to each side of the brain resulting in irreversible brain damage.
- Failure to notice when the patient has vomited during surgery. During surgery, a patient may vomit and then inhale the vomit back into his/her lungs. When this happens and it is not noticed by someone on the surgery or medical team, the inhaled vomit can inhibit the patient’s breathing and decrease the level of oxygen in the blood and brain – a condition referred to as hypoxia or hypoxic brain injury. The patient may suffer brain damage and other injuries as a result.
- Improper intubation of the patient. Under certain circumstances, anesthesiologists must intubate the patient during surgery. This involves the placement of the tube into the patient’s trachea to open up the airway, enabling the patient to breathe under general anesthesia. Airway problems can occur when the anesthesiologist fails to properly intubate the patient, prematurely removes the tube, or fails to secure the tube. Any of these failures can precipitate oxygen deprivation and brain damage.
- Inadequate monitoring of the patient after surgery. A patient who is administered too much anesthesia during surgery and requires monitoring that extends beyond the service hours of the surgical center may be transferred to the hospital for an overnight stay. However, the hospital may mistakenly assign the patient to a regular floor where the patient’s oxygen and breathing levels are not electronically monitored. If this occurs and the patient stops breathing, he or she may lack sufficient oxygen for a number of hours until a nurse comes in to check the patient’s vitals. The consequences can be death or irreversible brain damage if doctors are successful in reviving the patient.
- Lack of proper training or supervision. Anesthesia providers must have the appropriate training and experience to safely administer anesthesia. Inadequate training or lack of supervision may result in errors that can lead to brain damage.
Anesthesia errors are highly preventable. The sad fact is that they too often occur due to the negligence and carelessness of anesthesiologists. Such negligence that leads to brain damage or other injuries is certainly grounds for a medical malpractice lawsuit.
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