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Anesthesia Errors Can Put Patients Six Feet Under

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Causes of Anesthesia Errors

There are two primary causes for anesthesia errors. These causes are:

  • Poor Communication. Communication errors are caused by stress, fatigue, and personality conflicts within the surgical team. When communication errors occur, it is quite easy for critical details of the patient's health and information within their medical charts to be overlooked. In turn, this leads to the administration of the wrong dosage or the wrong type of anesthesia for the procedure.
  • Inadequate Training. Anesthesiologists are required to be educated, licensed, and certified. However, training and continuing education standards vary widely and that does not mean that they are qualified to apply anesthesia in every situation.

Types of Anesthesia

Medical personnel may utilize one of three basic types of anesthesia during a procedure. These include:

  • Local Anesthesia. This affects nerve function over a small region and is normally utilized for procedures such as dental work, breast biopsies, and the treatment of minor wounds such as stitches.
  • Regional Anesthesia. This procedure is used for longer, more invasive surgeries. In particular, it is used for surgeries involving the lower extremities such as procedures to remove varicose veins or during childbirth. It is often injected directly into the spinal column.
  • General Anesthesia. This is the most dangerous of all the procedures as it involves putting the patient into a state of unconsciousness. This procedure may be performed via a breathing mask or intravenously.

The Most Dangerous Anesthetics

Anesthesiologists utilize a variety of medications. Of these, the following are the ones with the greatest potential to cause injury or death.

  • Epinephrine. This drug is used to treat anaphylaxis, and if it is improperly administered it can cause hypertension or cardiac arrest.
  • Phenylephrine. Used to treat hypotension, a wrong dosage can lead to hypertension and cardiac failure.
  • Nitroprusside. Used to treat hypotension, it must be diluted otherwise it will cause rapid arterial vasodilation which can cause a patient to bleed out.
  • Potassium Chloride. Used to treat low potassium levels, a wrong dosage can cause an irregular heartbeat that can lead to death.
  • Heparin. Used during heart and vascular surgery, this anticoagulant can thin the blood and lead to uncontrolled bleeding.
  • Propofol. Used incorrectly, this general anesthetic can cause low blood pressure and vasodilation that can lead to death.
  • Etomidate. Used incorrectly, this drug suppresses adrenal function. If too much is administered, it will lead to adrenocortical failure and death.

Waking Up to the Dangers of Anesthesia

It is estimated that 1 or 2 patients in every thousand will regain consciousness during a surgical procedure involving general anesthesia. This amounts to nearly 26,000 patients per year in the United States. These patients experience pain, terror, and an extreme sense of helplessness. In many of these cases, patients can feel pain and are fully aware of their surroundings, yet they are not capable of controlling arms, legs, or speech to notify the surgical team that they are awake.

Of patients who regain consciousness during a surgical procedure, 70% will experience long-term complications including PTSD, nightmares, and chronic anxiety.

Factors that Increase the Risks of Anesthesia

When doctors and anesthesiologists fail to take certain risk factors into account, they unnecessarily put patient safety in jeopardy. These factors known to medical malpractice lawyers include:

  • The patient's age. The older a patient is at the time of surgery, the greater the risk of them suffering cardiac arrest or respiratory failure.
  • If the patient suffers from a severe liver disease such as cirrhosis, heart disease, lung disease, or cancer then the patient's organs will have difficulty processing the anesthesia.
  • The presence of diabetes, known drug allergies, or a recorded history of adverse reactions to anesthetic treatments.
  • Obesity and high blood pressure significantly impact the way the anesthetic will be processed and affect the region to be operated on.
  • Tobacco, marijuana, alcohol, or prescriptions can interact with anesthesia and cause it to lose effectiveness or trigger an allergic reaction.

Dying to Get Healthy

From 1999 to 2005, an average of 387 people died every year as the sole result of anesthesia errors. Of these, nearly 1/2 died because of the over-administration of anesthetic. The remaining 1/2 died from adverse side effects including uncontrolled bleeding and allergic reactions.

It's estimated that seven patients in every million surgeries will die in the hours or days following the administration of general anesthetic. The number skyrockets when looked at through a larger lens. Over the course of a year following general anesthesia, the mortality rate rises to one in twenty surgeries. The mortality rate is greatest among patients over 65 whose mortality rate in the year following the administration of general anesthesia is one in ten.

Anesthesia errors can cause significant pain, discomfort, and potentially death when they occur. While anesthesia errors are not as prevalent as other causes of hospital death such as infection, they occur at a rate that is no less significant, and no less alarming.

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