For any patient undergoing a medical procedure or surgery, it’s normal to experience anxiety, fear, and apprehension. Part of that emotional rollercoaster is tied to the idea of anesthesia. If a patient has to undergo general anesthesia, they may be concerned about the effects it could have on their body and waking up. It’s an anesthesiologist’s job to ensure the patient understands the process. They are also responsible for administering the medications, monitoring the patient during the procedure, and ensuring everything goes as planned. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. So, what can happen if an anesthesiologist makes a mistake during surgery?
Informed Consent and Risks Associated with Anesthesia
Prior to any surgery or medical procedure requiring anesthesia, it’s imperative the anesthesiologist establishes a doctor-patient relationship with the patient and provides them with the information they need to make an informed decision regarding the procedure.
A patient can only consent to a procedure if they are fully informed of the associated risks. With a pre-anesthetic interview, the doctor should go over the nature of the anesthetic plan, the type of anesthesia that will be used, the material risks and benefits, and the alternatives to the plan in the event something goes wrong.
Most of the risks associated with anesthesia administration are minor and temporary—like nausea, vomiting, chills, confusion, and a sore throat caused by the breathing tube. In rare instances, however, there are more serious risks to be aware of like breathing problems during and after surgery, long-term memory loss, and death. If a patient understands the risks and benefits of their operation and decides to proceed, they have supplied informed consent.
If an anesthesiologist fails to get informed consent and goes through with a procedure, they can be held liable for the failure to abide by the standard of care.
Types of Anesthesia
If your doctor recommends a medical procedure or surgery and informs you that anesthesia will be used, you’ll want to be fully informed on the type of medication and how it works, how it will be administered, and what the potential side effects are.
- Local Anesthesia. When administered properly, local anesthesia is safe and results in few side effects. It works by moving to the inside of the cell and binding to the sodium channel and blocking the influx of sodium ions. This blocking stops nerve conductance and prevents pain signals from reaching the brain. Local anesthesia is most commonly used during minor procedures where only a small area of the body needs to be numb, like suturing a wound or numbing the skin before a biopsy is performed. It’s likely the patient will be conscious during the procedure.
- Regional Anesthesia. Regional anesthesia differs from local in that it affects a larger region of the body. Examples include spinal or epidural blocks that block sensations in the lower body or limbs. With this type of medication, the patient can be consciously sedated or fully conscious. It’s generally administered through injection and may be used for thoracic surgery, vascular surgery, colon resections, and gynecologic surgeries. Common complications include pulmonary problems and infection.
- General Anesthesia. General anesthesia renders patients temporarily unconscious. It is typically administered through a mask or IV. The medications used for general anesthesia paralyze a patient’s muscles, including those that make it possible to breathe. That is why patients require ventilators to do the work of the diaphragm and other muscles that make it possible to inhale and exhale. This is used for surgeries that would otherwise be unbearable, like knee replacements and heart surgeries. Because of the associated risks, particularly revolving around oxygen deprivation and brain damage, the anesthesiologist is required to monitor your vital signs during the procedure.
Anesthesiologist Mistakes and Negligence
Anesthesia is essential to prevent patients from experiencing pain. Determining the type of medications to use and the dosage for each patient is challenging, which is why anesthesiologists have to undergo so much schooling to receive certification. If a preventable mistake happens and a patient is injured, the negligent doctor should be held accountable for their actions.
Medical malpractice is based on the concept of negligence. If an anesthesiologist fails to meet the standard of care, which involves providing the level of care that a physician in the same field would provide, they can be found negligent. Some of the most common anesthesia errors that cause harm include the following:
- Administering too much or too little anesthesia
- Delaying the delivery of anesthesia
- Failing to recognize adverse drug reactions
- Administering the wrong type of anesthesia
- Failing to recognize an allergic reaction
- Failing to provide proper instruction to the patient before or after surgery
- Failing to monitor a patient properly during surgery
- Ignoring the effects of patient positioning during a procedure
- Using defective equipment
Anesthesia-Related Injuries and Deaths
The consequences of the errors above vary greatly depending on the patient and the procedure that is being performed. According to the 2015 Medscape Malpractice Report, the majority of lawsuits against anesthesiologists result from patients suffering from abnormal injuries involving dental, surgical, or neurological complications, airway mishaps, cardiac arrest during surgery, overdose, and in-hospital infections. The most common injuries include tooth damage, nerve damage, organ damage, and cardiopulmonary arrest.
In some instances, the effects of those injuries can be fatal. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), there were over 2,200 anesthesia-related deaths in the United States between 1999 and 2005. The majority of those deaths resulted from the adverse effects of anesthetics. Nearly one-fifth of the complications occurred during pregnancy, labor, and puerperium.
Anesthesiology Errors and Brain Injuries
Brain injuries are among the most severe injuries to result from anesthesia malpractice. Mistakes that result in brain injuries include failing to monitor blood flow to the brain, aspiration, and failure to monitor the patient during recovery.
A person needs constant blood flow to their brain to oxygenate the brain and keep the cells alive. During surgery, the anesthesiologist is responsible for ensuring the patient’s brain continues to receive the oxygen it needs. When blood flow is interrupted, like when too much anesthesia is administered, the cells can be starved of oxygen. Oxygen deprivation can quickly result in a stroke, traumatic brain injury, or death.
Traumatic brain injuries can also occur if a patient aspirates. This is when a patient vomits during surgery and the contents of their stomach enter into their respiratory system. While patients are supposed to receive medication to prevent this, that doesn’t always happen. If the anesthesiologist isn’t monitoring the patient properly and they aspirate, they can experience low oxygen levels that affect the brain.
Once a surgery is over, the patient must be brought out of anesthesia safely. The anesthesiologist is responsible for monitoring the patient to ensure they wake up the way they are supposed to. If the doctor isn’t paying attention or fails to notice signs of distress, it’s possible the patient could sustain brain damage.
Legal Help for Victims of Medical Malpractice
Learning you or a family member has been harmed as a result of an anesthesiologist’s preventable mistake can be hard to deal with. If you’ve incurred losses are a result of their error, you have the right to take legal action to seek compensation. Contact a med mal attorney from Shrager & Sachs to learn more.