Anesthesia errors are a form of medical malpractice when they occur due to medical professional’s negligence or preventable mistake. In law, anesthesia error claims occur when a patient experiences unnecessary harm as a result of errors in administering anesthesia. Anesthesia errors can be performed by a doctor, nurse, anesthesiologist, or other medical staff members who administer anesthetic drugs to a patient.
What Is Anesthesia?
The term anesthesia refers to a temporary, medically-induced state that causes any combination of amnesia, inability to feel pain, loss of skeletal muscle reflexes, loss of responsiveness, and decreased stress response. Administration of anesthetics may involve one or more types of drug, depending on the desired effect.
Anesthesia is most often used before medical procedures, such as surgery. As a result, patients do not experience the pain or distress that they might experience if they were conscious or receptive to sensation. It is estimated that anesthetic drugs are administered roughly 40 million times per year.
Types of anesthesia include:
- General anesthesia, during which the patient is rendered unconscious
- Spinal and epidural anesthesia, which is delivered through injection near the spinal cord
- Local anesthesia to numb a specific bodily area, such as the urinary bladder or a tooth
- Regional anesthesia to numb larger areas of the body, such as an entire arm or leg
- Dissociative anesthesia, which causes a “trance-like” state of consciousness
Types of Anesthesia Errors
Anesthesia errors can occur in several forms. They may be caused by a number of factors, including defective equipment. However, many cases of anesthesia error occur due to negligence or incompetence of one or more medical professionals. In cases where anesthesia errors are caused by medical staff, the patient or patient’s family may file a lawsuit to recover damages.
Anesthesia errors most commonly include incidences such as:
- Administering too much of one or more anesthetic drugs
- Anesthesia awareness, or administering too little of one or more anesthetic drugs
- Delayed delivery of anesthesia
- Administering an incorrect anesthesia drug
- Failure to prevent anesthesia interactions, such as with prescription drugs
- Administering anesthetics to a patient with allergies
- Failure to properly instruct patients prior to anesthesia, such as limiting food or liquid intake
- Failure to administer oxygen during surgery or properly monitor the patient
- Defective medical devices and equipment used during anesthetic administration
Effects of Anesthesia Errors
Anesthesia errors may result in:
- Dizziness, confusion, and blurred vision
- Tinnitus, or a ringing noise in the ears
- Heart arrhythmia, or abnormal pulse
- Brain or organ damage
- Heart function problems
- Vein, artery, and nerve damage
- Asphyxia, or inadequate oxygen supply
- Blood pressure complications
- Birth defects
- Cardiovascular collapse
- Spinal cord injury, which may cause paralysis
- Malignant hyperthermia, resulting in severe fever and muscle contractions
- Seizures and stroke
- Coma and death
Anesthesia awareness occurs when too little anesthetics is administered to a patient prior to a medical procedure. Anesthesia awareness is also referred to as unintended intra-operative awareness. During anesthesia awareness, the lack of sufficient anesthesia results in patient consciousness. As a result, the patient may be awake and aware for the duration of the procedure.
Many types of surgery also involve administration of certain substances that temporarily paralyze the body and relax muscles during the procedure. In these anesthesia awareness cases, patients are unable to move or speak in an attempt to notify doctors that more anesthesia is needed. Patients who experience anesthesia awareness may develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of extreme stress and anxiety.
Anesthesia Error Statistics
The American Society of Anesthesiologists examines closed medical malpractice claims in order to investigate and potentially improve standards for anesthesiology. Data shows that respiratory issues are one of the most common causes of serious injury and death. Of the cases examined, 45 percent consisted of respiratory issues that resulted in brain damage and death of patients.
Columbia University Anesthesia Errors Study
A Columbia University study examined 2,211 anesthesia-related deaths that occurred over the course of six years. On average, roughly 300 anesthesia-related deaths occurred each year. The data was analyzed to determine the most common causes of anesthesia-related deaths.
The Columbia University anesthesia errors study revealed that, of the deaths:
- 46.6 percent were caused by anesthetics overdose
- 42.5 percent were related to the adverse effects of anesthetics during therapeutic use
- 3.6 percent occurred during pregnancy or labor
- The remaining 7.3 percent were due to other complications
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