Anesthesia allows surgeries to take place that would otherwise cause pain for patients. General anesthesia is typically safe, but the way it’s administered makes it possible for various forms of injury result from errors.
Many injuries sustained from anesthesia are avoidable and occur due to human error when medical professionals do not adhere to established standards of clinical practice. Sometimes patients become victims of these errors while they’re unconscious. Victims of anesthesia errors may be able to receive compensation for their injuries by filing a medical malpractice lawsuit.
Anesthesia Injuries are Avoidable
Routine procedures can become nightmares for patients and their families. For instance, a young teenager died after surviving a year in a vegetative state following a tragic case of negligence during her cosmetic procedure. After being administered anesthesia, Emmalyn Nguyen was left unobserved for fifteen minutes, during which she suffered cardiac arrest and permanent brain damage. Her parents filed a wrongful death suit to seek justice for their daughter.
Anesthesia injuries and deaths are avoidable. Patients trust their doctors to inform them of all risks and that they’re being placed in quality care. It is critical to understand a patient’s rights if an individual or a loved one falls victim to harmful negligence.
Anesthesia Malpractice Statistics
The American Society of Anesthesiologists evaluates anesthesia injuries in an effort to improve patient safety. Their database contains almost 9,000 claims since 1984 that include all areas of anesthesia from acute pain management to surgical anesthesia. Their findings conclude that:
- Surgical anesthesia was responsible for 65% of anesthesia malpractice claims
- Death (26%), nerve injury (22%) and permanent brain damage (9%) were the most common serious complications associated with any area of anesthesia
- Most frequent injuries reported were teeth damage (20.8%), nerve damage (13.5%), organ damage (12.7%), general pain (10.9%), and cardiac arrest (10.7%)
- Claims for monitored anesthesia care (MAC), as well as acute and chronic pain anesthesia have increased significantly in the last two decades
A Lack of Quality Preoperative Assessments
Another study of anesthesiology malpractice states that 15% of the anesthesia-related malpractice claims revealed victims had inadequate preoperative assessments. This means a doctor failed to thoroughly examine a patient’s medical history for relevant conditions that could lead to complications.
Potentially relevant conditions include seizure activity, organ function and health, sleep apnea, history of problems with intubation, and past reactions to anesthetics and allergies.
Common Anesthesia Errors
An anesthesiologist is a doctor who has become specialized with years of expert training. If an anesthesiologist makes a mistake, a patient may be able to sue for anesthesia malpractice. The most common forms of errors that may lead to malpractice claims include:
- Wrong dosage – Administering the wrong amount of anesthesia can result in severe complications. This can occur due to an anesthesiologist error, or mislabeled medication.
- Failure to properly monitor patients – It’s necessary to monitor patients’ vital signs, levels of consciousness and how they react to the anesthesia. It’s essential to look for any sign of complications; a mistake here can be extremely harmful.
- Oxygen problems – Serious harm can be caused to the patient when his/her oxygen levels are not properly monitored. Anesthesiologists must be attentive to any changes in a patient’s need for oxygen while correctly operating the oxygen monitoring equipment.
- Intubation errors – Sometimes a tube needs to be inserted into a patient’s windpipe for breathing assistance during surgery. Incorrectly intubating or removing the intubation can cause harm to the patient.
Common Injuries Caused by Anesthesia Errors
The most common anesthesia-related injuries are not major disabilities or death, but still may cause severe pain and suffering. It is helpful to separate different injuries and complications by looking at the various steps involved in anesthesia care.
Dental Injuries During Airway Management
Occurring during one in 20 general anesthesia procedures, oral injury is the most frequent cause for anesthesiology-related litigation in the US. Damage to the trachea or esophagus can be life-threatening, but such damage is rare.
Teeth damage is the most common anesthesia-related complication. The upper front teeth (upper incisors) are the most likely to be injured during laryngoscopy, or viewing of the throat, and intubation. The tube has to curve through the mouth and can sometimes strike the teeth. Natural teeth and restorations can be chipped, cracked, knocked loose, or knocked out if doctors aren’t careful.
Eye Injuries During General Anesthesia
Eye injuries are easier to prevent than to treat. During anesthesia, trauma can occur from inadequately taping the eyes shut. The patient’s eyes MUST be fully closed and protected in order to avoid prolonged exposure to the surface of the eye. Called exposure keratopothy, this damage can lead to ulceration, infection, or permanent vision loss from scarring.
General anesthesia makes the eyes, particularly the cornea, more vulnerable by reducing tear production. At this point, even the slightest contact with the eye can result in corneal abrasion, a scratch to the surface, during surgery. In other words, any form of negligence (i.e. dangling hospital badges or stethoscopes) can cause serious harm to the eye. Corneal abrasion can be excruciating for a patient while healing in the post-operative period.
- Botched Nerve Blocks: Anesthesia nerve blocks are injections that are usually done in addition to general anesthesia for surgery being performed on a limb. These injections use sharp needles to put extremely potent drugs very close to the nerves to be affected. The process creates a high potential for damage and painful, debilitating, and often permanent damage. Any error in this procedure can result in a devastating case of medical malpractice.
Nerve blocks are often seen for injuries such as distal radius fractures or other injuries to the wrist or forearm. A common location for nerve blocks is between the base of the neck and shoulder behind the clavicle. This is where a bundle of sensory and motor nerves is, which branch off down from the shoulder all the way to the fingers. Damage to these nerves can permanently shut off a patient’s ability to move or feel the arm and fingers.
- Peripheral Nerve Damage: This injury refers to damage to the nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord, often resulting in patient disability and malpractice claims. The most common cause is medical staff poorly positioning the patient.
Generally, when an alert person’s body is in a position that could cause nerve damage, the person senses discomfort and adjusts (such as when a person’s leg falls asleep). Under general anesthesia, the person obviously does not have this ability. Therefore, nerve damage can result from anesthesia being administered when a patient is in an improper position that can lead to the pinching of a nerve.
Errors in Administering Spinal Anesthesia
Error committed in the administration of spinal anesthesia (epidural) can cause life-changing injuries or death. These injuries include:
- Paraplegia, which is the paralysis of lower limbs. An anesthetist’s lack of proper anatomical knowledge or skill can lead to injecting the epidural at the wrong part of the spinal cord. This can lead to permanent, irreversible damage that can leave patients paralyzed for life.
- Neural damage from the needle puncturing a fragile spinal nerve
- Leakage of spinal fluid
If too much anesthesia is administered, respiratory and cardiac arrest can occur. Cardiac arrest is a sudden loss of blood flow when the heart can’t pump effectively. Cardiac arrest can occur when negligence results in a botched epidural, damaging the nerves responsible for signaling the heart to beat.
Asphyxia and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)
A lack of adequate oxygen supply causes trauma to the brain. It’s the responsibility of attending physicians to constantly monitor a patient’s vital statistics in order to prevent oxygen deprivation, stroke and other brain damage complications. Errors that can lead to brain damage and anesthesia malpractice include:
- Not adequately monitoring blood flow to the brain. Not giving full attention to a patient’s status can result in the onset of any developing complications. A patient is at risk for irreversible brain damage if left unobserved for even just a few minutes.
- Failure to notice when a patient vomits during surgery. This can cause the patient to inhale the vomit back into the lungs, inhibiting breathing and decreasing oxygen to the brain.
- Improper intubation of the patient. Airway problems can occur if the doctor prematurely removes the tube or fails to adequately secure the tube. Either failure can result in oxygen deprivation and brain damage.
Proving an Anesthesiologist’s Negligence
Harm caused by an anesthesiologist’s negligence can take many forms, with wrongful death being the most devastating consequence. It’s essential to obtain the help of a legal team that has extensive practice with malpractice lawsuits. Losses that can be recovered from a lawsuit through compensation include:
- Pain and suffering
- Cost of medical bills
- Loss of earning capacity
- Loss of quality of life or emotional turmoil
- Damages for loss of companionship
Get Help from Sobo & Sobo
Anyone believed to be harmed by the negligence of a medical professional should not hesitate to contact Sobo & Sobo today. As the most trusted and experienced New York medical malpractice attorneys in the state for over 50 years, we are prepared to protect the rights of any injured plaintiff.
Contact Sobo & Sobo online or call 855-468-7626 for a free consultation. You are not alone on the path to healing and recovery.