General anesthesia is the use of intravenous and inhaled agents to bring a patient into a state controlled unconsciousness, making them unable to feel pain. Essentially, this allows patients to undergo certain procedures that would otherwise inflict unbearable pain and scarring memories. However, bringing a patient into a state of unconsciousness has inherent risks and can lead to permanent injury or death if done improperly.
It is important that a health professional explain the potential risks involved when a patient is put under anesthesia. Such risks include:
Improper Screening for Health Conditions: Certain pre-existing health conditions can mean that a patient is ineligible for procedures involving anesthesia. It is the duty of a doctor to screen potential patients for underlying issues such as heart conditions, nervous system disorders, lung injury and even allergies to anesthetic agents. Proper and thorough screening is an essential first step to ensuring there are no unexpected issues and adverse reactions when a patient is anesthetized.
Hypoxia and Hypoxemia: Hypoxia is when the body receives inadequate oxygen at the tissue level. Hypoxemia is caused by a low level of oxygen in the blood, specifically arterial blood. Both conditions can be caused through errors when a patient has been anesthetized. Improper regulation of oxygen can lead to one of or both Hypoxia and Hypoxemia, which can in turn damage organs. A lack of oxygen to the brain for even five minutes can cause permanent damage.
Intubation: General Anesthesia decreases the patient’s ability to breath on their own. Assisted breathing is made possible by such devices as an endotracheal tube and laryngeal mask airway. A number of issues can arise from these assisted breathing methods. Such complications include the endotracheal tube being inserted into the esophagus, a puncturing of the trachea, and a spasm of the larynx, all of which can lead to hypoxia. Improper intubation can cause teeth to be chipped or broken during intubation, and even dislocate the jaw. While some risks are inherent with the procedure, there is an obligation that the patient or medical guardian be properly informed of the risks prior to providing their consent to the procedure. A failure to obtain informed consent prior to commencing a procedure could be a basis for negligence where the patient suffers injury as a result of the procedure.
Failure to Save a Life: Any health care provider, whether a dentist, doctor, nurse or anesthesiologist needs to be prepared when things go wrong. It takes less than five minutes without oxygen to the brain to cause permanent damage. If a patient begins to show signs of hypoxia, stops breathing for an extended period of time or even has their heart stop, it is crucial that preparations have been made to act immediately. Having defibrillators, adrenaline inducing drugs such as epinephrine, magnesium and other anesthesia drugs and resuscitation equipment on hand increases the chances of rescuing a patient. Having an anesthesiologist either by the patient’s side or able to respond to an emergency nearby can further improve the chances of a patient in the crucial minutes after something goes wrong. A lack of life saving procedures and properly trained specialists on hand can lead to otherwise preventable permanent damage and even death.
Other complications that can occur while under general anesthesia include post-operative blindness, organ damage and even cardiac arrest. These errors are generally avoidable, but still continue to occur due to the negligence of a surgeon, anesthesiologist, dentist, nurse or other health care professionals involved with ensuring a patient’s safety while under general anesthetic.
While not every injury that occurs as a result of anaesthesia is the result of negligence such that a viable lawsuit exists, it is important that if you or a loved one has suffered injury in a circumstance like those noted above and you suspect that the anaesthetist or other treatment providers involved were negligent, that you seek advice from a lawyer with experience in the area of medical malpractice law.