A primer on Iowa anesthesiologist malpractice

Errors with anesthesia during surgical procedures or tests can be fatal to patients.

Every day in America, millions of surgical procedures - running the gamut from routine, minimally invasive operations like removing moles to lengthy and delicate ones like brain surgery - are performed. The majority of these, even the highly specialized and difficult ones, happen without incident and patients go on to recover as expected. Sometimes, however, things go wrong due to the fault or negligence of one or more members of the surgical team.

In some instances, the issue lies with the actions of the surgeon him or herself. Examples of this include when a vital organ is nicked, causing internal bleeding that results in lasting complications or when a retained surgical implement leads to infection and internal scarring. In other cases, however, the patient is harmed by the actions, inactions, negligence or recklessness of someone else in the operating room: the anesthesiologist.

The risks are real

Every surgical procedure comes with its own unique risks. After all, you wouldn't need to read lengthy consent forms and acknowledge potential complications if the possibility wasn't there. Any surgery that involves anesthesia - particularly heavy sedation and general anesthesia (where the patient is rendered unconscious and unable to respond to pain) - comes with additional peril because of the added stress on the body. Even so, the chances of a patient dying due to the administering of anesthesia are low; a 2011 German medical study found that, worldwide, only about seven patients in every million die due to general anesthesia.

That being said, there are still risks associated with being "put under," and most of them turn directly on the skill of the anesthesiologist. For example, there are many different options for anesthesia, and the right balance needs to be struck according to a variety of factors. Failing to find the proper balance can lead to the patient's respiration or heart rate falling dangerously low, which can lead to potentially deadly hypoxia (when the body's oxygen levels get too low) or to a condition known as "anesthesia awareness."

Anesthesia awareness affects one out of every 1,000 patients under anesthesia. The patient actually rouses from the deepest level of sedation and, actually becomes aware of what is happening during the operation and can feel pain even though his or her vital signs might not change and he or she is unable to move. This, obviously, could be very traumatic for the patient.

Striking the right balance

The right anesthesia balance must be based upon a number of factors and must be tailored for each individual patient. These factors include:

  • General health of the patient
  • His or her weight
  • Any anatomical issues that could make intubation of the patient more difficult
  • Type of procedure
  • Approximate time the patient will need to be under anesthesia
  • Patient's health history, particularly if he or she has had bad reactions to prior anesthesia medications or if there is a history of medication allergies
  • If any medications are contra-indicated/will conflict with other drugs the patient is taking

A common practice - the use of having highly trained nurses called "nurse anesthetists" administer and supervise anesthesia, has been linked to slightly higher rates of anesthesia-related complications than having doctors (anesthesiologists) do the same. This is due in no small part to the added training that doctors receive, meaning that they are, in many cases, simply better equipped to handle complications that could arise during surgery than a nurse would be under the same circumstances. Iowa actually was the first state to forego the requirement that anesthesiologists directly supervise administration of anesthesia, and has allowed nurse anesthetists to be solely responsible since 2001.

Sadly, there is a chance that you or someone you love will be injured while receiving or after receipt of anesthesia drugs. If that happens, you might be able to bring a legal claim for compensation to hold any at-fault parties accountable for any injuries that happened as a result. To learn more about your legal rights in a case like this, contact that West Des Moines law offices of Hixson and Brown. You can reach the firm locally at 515-650-4531 or toll free at 800-229-9854.