DOES REPEATED GENERAL ANESTHESIA HARM THE BRAINS OF INFANTS AND YOUNG CHILDREN?

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

Latest posts by the anesthesia consultant (see all)

Recent scholarly publications have raised the question whether repeated exposure to general anesthesia is harmful to the developing brain in infants and young children.  Millions of children have surgery under general anesthesia each year. Is repeated exposure to general anesthesia safe for the developing brain of your child? Let’s look at the evidence.

pediatric anesthesia

In 2011, a retrospective Mayo Clinic study looked at the incidence of learning disabilities (LDs) in a cohort of children born in Olmsted County, Minnesota, from 1976 to 1982.  Among the 8,548 children analyzed, 350 of the children received general anesthesia before the age of 2.  A single exposure to general anesthesia was not associated with an increase in LDs, but children who had two or more anesthetics were at increased risk for LDs.  The study concluded that repeated exposure to anesthesia and surgery before the age of 2 was a significant independent risk factor for the later development of LDs.  The authors could not exclude the possibility that multiple exposures to anesthesia and surgery at an early age adversely affected human neurodevelopment with lasting consequences.

The same group of Mayo Clinic researchers looked at the incidence of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children born from 1976 to 1982 in Rochester, Minnesota.  Among the 5,357 children analyzed, 341 ADHD cases were identified.  For children with no exposure anesthesia before the age of 2 years, the cumulative incidence of ADHD at age 19 years was 7.3%  Exposure to multiple procedures requiring general anesthesia was associated with an increased cumulative incidence of ADHD of 17.9%. The authors concluded that children repeatedly exposed to procedures requiring general anesthesia before age 2 years were at increased risk for the later development of ADHD.

Anesthesia scientists decided to study this problem in mice.  In March 2013, researchers at Harvard and other hospitals exposed 6- and 60-day-old mice to various anesthetic regimens. The authors then determined the effects of the anesthesia on learning and memory function, and on the levels of proinflammatory chemicals such as cytokine interleukin-6 in the animals’ brains. The authors showed that anesthesia with 3% sevoflurane for 2 hours daily for 3 days induced cognitive impairment (i.e., unusually poor mental function) and neuroinflammation (i.e., elevated levels of brain inflammatory chemicals such as interleukin-6) in young but not in adult mice. Anesthesia with 3% sevoflurane for 2 hours daily for 1 day or 9% desflurane for 2 hours daily for 3 days caused neither cognitive impairment nor neuroinflammation. Treatment with the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drug ketorolac caused improvement in the sevoflurane-induced cognitive impairment. The authors concluded that anesthesia-induced cognitive impairment may depend on age, the specific anesthetic agent, and the number of exposures. The findings also suggested that cellular inflammation in the brain may be the basis for the problem of anesthesia-induced cognitive impairment, and that potential prevention and treatment strategies with NSAIDs may ultimately lead to safer anesthesia care and better postoperative outcomes for children.

The same Harvard research group assessed the effects of sevoflurane on brain function in pregnant mice, and on learning and memory in fetal and offspring mice. Pregnant mice were treated with 2.5% sevoflurane for 2 hours and 4.1% sevoflurane for 6 hours. Brain tissues of both fetal and offspring mice were harvested and immunohistochemistry tests were done to assess interleukin-6 and other brain inflammatory levels.  Learning and memory functions in the offspring mice was determined by using a water maze. The results showed that sevoflurane anesthesia in pregnant mice induced brain inflammation, evidenced by increased interleukin-6 levels in fetal and offspring mice.  Sevoflurane anesthesia also impaired learning and memory in offspring mice. The authors concluded that sevoflurane may induce detrimental effects in fetal and offspring mice, and that these findings should promote more studies to determine the neurotoxicity of anesthesia in the developing brain.

What does all this mean to you if your children need anesthesia and surgery?  Although further studies and further data will be forthcoming, the current information suggests that:  (1) if your child has one exposure to anesthesia, this may constitute no increased risk to their developing brain, and (2) repeated surgery and anesthetic exposure to sevoflurane may be harmful to the development of the brain of children under 2 years of age.  It would seem a wise choice to delay surgery until your child is older if at all possible.

What does all this mean to anesthesiologists?  We’ll be watching the literature for new publications on this topic, but in the meantime it seems prudent to avoid exposing newborns and young children to repeated anesthetics with sevoflurane.  Currently, sevoflurane is the anesthetic of choice when we put children to sleep with a mask induction, because sevoflurane smells pleasant and it works fast.  Children become unconscious within a minute or two.  After a child is asleep, it may be advisable to switch from sevoflurane to the alternative gas anesthetic desflurane, since the Harvard study on mice showed anesthesia with 9% desflurane for 2 hours daily for 3 days caused neither cognitive impairment nor neuroinflammation.  A second alternative is to switch from sevoflurane to intravenous anesthetics alone, e.g., to utilize propofol and remifentanil infusions instead of sevoflurane.

The concept of pediatric anesthesia harming the developing brain was reviewed in the lay press in Time magazine in 2009.  The four articles I summarized above represent the most recent and detailed advances on this topic.  Stay tuned.  The issue of anesthetic risk to the developing brain will be closely scrutinized for years to come.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

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Published in September 2017:  The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:

41wlRoWITkL

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below:  

DSC04882_edited

 

 

AWARENESS UNDER GENERAL ANESTHESIA

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

Latest posts by the anesthesia consultant (see all)

How common is awareness under general anesthesia? In 2007, Hollywood released the movie Awake, in which the protagonist, played by Hayden Christensen (Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars) is awake during the general anesthetic for his heart surgery, and overhears the surgeon’s plan to murder him.  Producer Joana Vicente told Variety that Awake “will do to surgery what Jaws did to swimming in the ocean.” The movie trailer airs a statement that states, “Every year 21 million people are put under anesthesia. One out of 700 remain awake.”

 

            Awake was not much of a commercial success, with a total box office of only $32 million, but the film did publicize the issue of intraoperative awareness under general anesthesia, a topic worth reviewing.

If you undergo general anesthesia, do you have a 1 in 700 chance of being awake?  If you are a healthy patient undergoing routine surgery, the answer is no.  If you are sick and you are having a high-risk procedure, the answer is yes.

A key publication on this topic was the Sebel study. The Sebel study was a prospective, nonrandomized study, conducted on 20,000 patients at seven academic medical centers in the United States. Patients were scheduled for surgery under general anesthesia, and then interviewed in the postoperative recovery room and at least one week after anesthesia.

A total of 25 awareness cases were identified, a 0.13% incidence, which approximates the 1 in 700 incidence quoted in the Awake movie trailer. Awareness was associated with increased American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) physical status, i.e. sicker patients.  Assuming that approximately 20 million anesthetics are administered in the United States annually, the authors postulated that approximately 26,000 cases of intraoperative awareness occur each year.

Healthy patients are at minimal risk for intraoperative awareness. Patients at higher risk for intraoperative awareness include:

1. Patients with a history of substance abuse or chronic pain.

2. American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Class 4 patients (patients with a severe systemic disease that is a constant threat to their life) and others with limited cardiovascular reserve.

3. Patients with previous history of intraoperative awareness.

4. The use of neuromuscular paralyzing drugs during the anesthetic.

5. Certain surgical procedures are higher risk for intraoperative awareness.  These procedures include cardiac surgery, Cesarean sections under general anesthesia, trauma or emergency cases.

The causes of intraoperative awareness include:

1. Intentionally light anesthesia administered to patients who are hypotensive or hypovolemic, or those with limited cardiovascuar reserve.

2. Intentionally light anesthesia administered to obstetric patients, in the attempt to avoid neonatal respiratory depression.

3. Efforts to expedite operating room turnover and minimize recovery room times.

4. Some patients have higher anesthetic requirements, due to chronic alcohol or drugs.

5. Equipment and provider errors:

Empty vaporizers with no potent anesthetic liquid inside

Syringe pump malfunction

Syringe swap, or mislabeling of a syringe

6. Difficult intubation, in which the anesthesia provider forgets to give supplementary IV doses of hypnotics.

7. Choice of anesthetic.  In multiple trials, the use of neuromuscular blockers is associated with awareness.

8. Some studies show a higher incidence of awareness with total intravenous anesthesia or nitrous-narcotic techniques.

What are the legal implications of intraoperative awareness?

The Domino study reported that cases of awareness represented 1.9% of malpractice claims against anesthesiologists. Deficiencies in labeling syringes and vigilance were common causes for awake paralysis. The patients’ vital signs were not classic clues:  hypertension was present in only 15% of recall cases, and tachycardia was present in only 7%.

What are the consequences of intraoperative awareness?

The following consequences have been reported from the Samuelsson study:

1. Recollections of auditory perceptions and a sensation of paralysis.  Anxiety, helplessness, and panic.  Pain is described less frequently.

2. Up to 70% of patients develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), i.e. late psychological symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, chronic fear, nightmares, flashbacks, insomnia, depression, or preoccupation with death.

What about BIS Monitoring?

Bispectral Index monitoring, or BIS monitoring, uses a computerized algorithm to convert a single channel of frontal EEG into an index score of hypnotic level, ranging from 100 (awake) to 0 (isoelectric EEG).

The BIS monitor was FDA-approved in 1996.  A BIS level of 40 – 60 reflects a low probability of consciousness during general anesthesia.  BIS measures the hypnotic components of anesthesia (e.g. effects of propofol and volatile agents), and is relatively insensitive to analgesic components (e.g. narcotics) of the anesthetic.  The BIS monitor is neither 100% sensitive nor 100% specific.

The B-Aware Trial was a randomized, double-blind, multi-center controlled trial using BIS in 2500 patients at high risk for awareness (cardiac surgery, C-sections, impaired cardiovascular status, trauma, chronic narcotic users, heavy alcohol users).   Explicit recall occurred in 0.16% (2 patients) when BIS used, vs. 0.89% (11 patients) when no BIS was used. This was a significant finding (p=0.022).

A significant paper published in the world’s leading anesthesia journal concluded that the predictive positive and negative values of BIS monitoring were low due to the infrequent occurrence of intraoperative awareness.  In addition, the cost of BIS monitoring all patients undergoing general anesthesia is high. Because there have been reported cases of awareness despite BIS monitoring, the authors concluded that the effectiveness of the monitor is less than 100%. The authors concluded that the contention that BIS Index monitoring reduces the risk of awareness is unproven, and the cost of using it for this indication is currently unknown.

In 2005, the American Society of Anesthesiologists published its Practice Advisory for Intraoperative Awareness.  The anesthesia practitioner is advised to do the following:

1. Review patient medical records for potential risk factors. (Substance use or abuse, previous history of intraoperative awareness, history of difficult intubation, chronic pain patients using high doses of opioids, ASA physical status IV or V, limited hemodynamic reserve).

2. Determine other potential risk factors. (Cardiac surgery, C-section, trauma surgery, emergency surgery, reduced anesthetic doses in the presence of paralysis, planned use of muscle relaxants during the maintenance phase of general anesthesia, planned use of nitrous oxide-opioid anesthesia).

3. Patients considered to be at increased risk of intraoperative awareness should be informed of the possibility when circumstances permit.

4. Preinduction checklist protocol for anesthesia machines and equipment to assure that the desired anesthetic drugs and doses will be delivered.  Verify IV access, infusion pumps, and their connections.

5. The decision to administer a benzodiazepine prophylactically should be made on a case-by-case basis for selected patients.

6. Intraoperative monitoring of depth of anesthesia, for the purpose of minimizing the occurrence of awareness, should rely on multiple modalities, including clinical techniques (e.g., ECG, blood pressure, HR, end-tidal anesthetic gas analyzer, and capnography)…. Brain function monitoring is not routinely indicated for patients undergoing general anesthesia, either to reduce the frequency of intraoperative awareness or to monitor depth of anesthesia…. The decision to use a brain function monitor should be made on a case-by-case basis by the individual practitioner of selected patients (e.g. light anesthesia).

Published suggestions for the prevention of awareness include:

1. Premedication with an amnestic agent.

2. Giving adequate doses of induction agents.

3. Avoiding muscle paralysis unless totally necessary.

4. Supplementing nitrous/narcotic anesthesia with 0.6% MAC of a volatile agent.

5. Administering 0.8 – 1.0 MAC when volatile agent is used alone.

6. Confirming delivery of anesthetic agents to the patient

In 2006, the California Society of Anesthesiologists released the following Statement on Intraoperative Awareness:

“ . . . Anesthesiologists are trained to minimize the occurrence of awareness under general anesthesia.  It is recognized that on rare occasions, usually associated with a patient’s critical condition, this may be unavoidable.  Furthermore, it is commonplace in contemporary anesthetic practice to employ a variety of techniques using regional nerve blocks and varying degrees of sedation.  Patients often do not make an distinction between these techniques and general anesthesia, yet awareness is often expected and anticipated with the former.  This may have led to a misunderstanding of ‘awareness’ during surgery by many patients.”

In 2011, the New England Journal of Medicine, arguably the most prestigious medical journal in the world, published a study looking at using the BIS monitor for the prevention of intraoperative awareness. Prevention of intraoperative awareness in a high-risk surgical population). The researchers tested the hypothesis that a protocol incorporating the electroencephalogram-derived bispectral index (BIS) was superior to a protocol incorporating standard monitoring of end-tidal anesthetic-agent concentration (ETAC) for the prevention of awareness. They randomly assigned 6041 patients at high risk for awareness to either BIS-guided anesthesia or ETAC-guided anesthesia. Results showed that a total of 7 of 2861 patients (0.24%) in the BIS group, as compared with 2 of 2852 (0.07%) in the ETAC group, had definite intraoperative awareness.  The superiority of the BIS protocol was not established.  Contrary to expectations, fewer patients in the ETAC group than in the BIS group experienced awareness.

To conclude, intraoperative awareness is a real but rare occurrence, with certain patient populations at higher risk. The BIS monitor is no panacea. Specific pharmacologic strategies can minimize the incidence of awareness. If you are a healthy patient undergoing a routine procedure, intraoperative awareness should be very rare.

The best defense against intraoperative awareness will always be the presence of a well-trained and vigilant physician anesthesiologist.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

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Published in September 2017:  The second edition of THE DOCTOR AND MR. DYLAN, Dr. Novak’s debut novel, a medical-legal mystery which blends the science and practice of anesthesiology with unforgettable characters, a page-turning plot, and the legacy of Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan.

KIRKUS REVIEW

In this debut thriller, tragedies strike an anesthesiologist as he tries to start a new life with his son.

Dr. Nico Antone, an anesthesiologist at Stanford University, is married to Alexandra, a high-powered real estate agent obsessed with money. Their son, Johnny, an 11th-grader with immense potential, struggles to get the grades he’ll need to attend an Ivy League college. After a screaming match with Alexandra, Nico moves himself and Johnny from Palo Alto, California, to his frozen childhood home of Hibbing, Minnesota. The move should help Johnny improve his grades and thus seem more attractive to universities, but Nico loves the freedom from his wife, too. Hibbing also happens to be the hometown of music icon Bob Dylan. Joining the hospital staff, Nico runs afoul of a grouchy nurse anesthetist calling himself Bobby Dylan, who plays Dylan songs twice a week in a bar called Heaven’s Door. As Nico and Johnny settle in, their lives turn around; they even start dating the gorgeous mother/daughter pair of Lena and Echo Johnson. However, when Johnny accidentally impregnates Echo, the lives of the Hibbing transplants start to implode. In true page-turner fashion, first-time novelist Novak gets started by killing soulless Alexandra, which accelerates the downfall of his underdog protagonist now accused of murder. Dialogue is pitch-perfect, and the insults hurled between Nico and his wife are as hilarious as they are hurtful: “Are you my husband, Nico? Or my dependent?” The author’s medical expertise proves central to the plot, and there are a few grisly moments, as when “dark blood percolated” from a patient’s nostrils “like coffee grounds.” Bob Dylan details add quirkiness to what might otherwise be a chilly revenge tale; we’re told, for instance, that Dylan taught “every singer with a less-than-perfect voice…how to sneer and twist off syllables.” Courtroom scenes toward the end crackle with energy, though one scene involving a snowmobile ties up a certain plot thread too neatly. By the end, Nico has rolled with a great many punches.

Nuanced characterization and crafty details help this debut soar.

Click on the image below to reach the Amazon link to The Doctor and Mr. Dylan:

41wlRoWITkL

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below:  

DSC04882_edited

 

 

DO ANESTHESIOLOGISTS HAVE THE HIGHEST MALPRACTICE INSURANCE RATES?

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

Latest posts by the anesthesia consultant (see all)

How high are anesthesiology malpractice rates? Do Anesthesiologists pay the highest malpractice insurance rates?

In a word, “No.”

Anesthesia mishaps can lead to critical events such as death or coma, but in recent decades improvements in operating room technology and education have led to fewer such events.

Prior to 1985, anesthesia malpractice claims for death or brain death were most often due to lack of oxygen the patient’s heart or brain.  Two significant breakthroughs arrived in the 1980’s to help anesthesiologists care for you:  1) the pulse oximeter, and 2) the end-tidal carbon dioxide monitor.

The pulse oximeter, developed by Nellcor and Stanford anesthesiologist William New, M.D., is a device that clips to a patient’s fingertip.  A light-emitting diode shines a red light through the finger, and a sensor on the opposite side of the finger measures the degree of redness in the pulsatile blood flow within the finger.  The more red the color of the blood, the more oxygen is present.  A computer in the pulse oximeter calculates a score, called the oxygen saturation, which is a number from 0-100%.  An oxygen saturation equal to or greater that 90% correlates with a safe amount of oxygen in the arterial blood.  A score of 89% or lower correlates with a dangerously low oxygen level in the blood.  The pulse oximeter monitor enables doctors to know, second-to-second, whether a patient is getting sufficient oxygen.  If the oxygen saturation goes below 90%, doctors will act quickly to diagnose and treat the cause of the low oxygen level.  A patient can usually sustain a short period low oxygen saturation, e.g. up to 2 or 3 minutes, without permanent damage to the brain or cardiac arrest by an oxygen-starved heart.

The end-tidal carbon dioxide (CO2) monitor is a device that measures the concentration of CO2 in the gas exhaled by a patient on every breath.  During normal ventilation, every exhaled breath contains CO2.  When no CO2 is measured, there is no ventilation, and the doctor must act quickly to diagnose and treat the cause of the lack of ventilation.

Prior to the invention of these two monitors, it was possible for an anesthesiologist to mistakenly place a breathing tube in a patient’s esophagus, instead of the trachea, and not know of the error until the patient sustained a cardiac arrest.  With the addition of the two monitors, the lack of CO2 (there is no CO2 in the stomach or esophagus) from the end-tidal CO2 monitor immediately indicates that the tube is in the wrong  place.  The anesthesiologist can then remove the tube, resume mask ventilation with oxygen, and attempt to replace the tube into the windpipe.  If the oxygen level to the patient’s blood dips below 90%, this is a second piece of data that indicates that the patient is in danger of brain damage or cardiac arrest.

In addition, in the early 1990’s the American Society of Anesthesiologists created the Difficult Airway Algorithm, which is a step-by-step approach for anesthesiologists to follow when the task of placing a breathing tube for an anesthetic is challenging or difficulty.  This Algorithm dictates a standard of care for practitioners, and this advance in education lowered the number of mismanaged airways.

In the 1980’s, surgical anesthesia claims were 80% of closed malpractice claims against anesthesiologists (American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims database).  By the 2000’s, this number dropped to 65%.   Brain damage represented 9% of claims, and nerve injury accounted for 22% of claims (23% were permanent and disabling, including loss of limb function, or paraplegia or quadriplegia)  Less common claims were airway injury (7% of claims), emotional distress, (5% of claims), eye injuries including blindness (4% of claims), and awareness during general anesthesia (2% of claims).

Decreasing anesthesiologist malpractice premiums reflect the decrease in the number of catastrophic anesthesia claims for esophageal intubation, death, and brain death.

In 1985, the average malpractice insurance premium was $36,224 per year for a $1 Million per claim/$3 Million per year policy.   By 2009, this decreased to $21,480, a striking 40% drop.(Anesthesia in the United States 2009, Anesthesia Quality Institute)

Specialties with the highest risk of facing malpractice claims are neurosurgery (19.1 percent), thoracic and cardiovascular surgery (18.9 percent) and general surgery (15.3 percent). Specialties with the  lowest risks are family medicine (5.2 percent), pediatrics (3.1 percent) and psychiatry (2.6 percent).  Anesthesiologists rank in the middle of the pack, at 7%.  (Malpractice Risk According to Physician Specialty, Jena, et al, N Engl J Med 2011) From 1991 to 2005, this article identified 66 malpractice awards that exceeded $1 million dollars, which accounted for less than 1% of all payments. Obstetrics and gynecology accounted for the most payments (11), followed by pathology (10), anesthesiology (7), and pediatrics (7).

The take-home message is that anesthesia has serious risks, but those risks have decreased significantly in recent years because of improvements in monitoring and education.  Compared to other specialties, the risk of an anesthesiologist being sued is about average among American medical specialties.

 

The most popular posts for laypeople on The Anesthesia Consultant include:

How Long Will It Take To Wake Up From General Anesthesia?

Why Did Take Me So Long To Wake From General Anesthesia?

Will I Have a Breathing Tube During Anesthesia?

What Are the Common Anesthesia Medications?

How Safe is Anesthesia in the 21st Century?

Will I Be Nauseated After General Anesthesia?

What Are the Anesthesia Risks For Children?

 

The most popular posts for anesthesia professionals on The Anesthesia Consultant  include:

10 Trends for the Future of Anesthesia

Should You Cancel Anesthesia for a Potassium Level of 3.6?

12 Important Things to Know as You Near the End of Your Anesthesia Training

Should You Cancel Surgery For a Blood Pressure = 178/108?

Advice For Passing the Anesthesia Oral Board Exams

What Personal Characteristics are Necessary to Become a Successful Anesthesiologist?

 

 

Learn more about Rick Novak’s fiction writing at ricknovak.com by clicking on the picture below:  

DSC04882_edited

 

 

INFORMED CONSENT IN ANESTHESIA: SHOULD YOU TELL PATIENTS THEY COULD DIE?

the anesthesia consultant

Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board-certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
email rjnov@yahoo.com
phone 650-465-5997

Latest posts by the anesthesia consultant (see all)

Clinical Case: A 45-year-old woman is scheduled for a hysterectomy.  She is being treated for hypertension, and is otherwise healthy.  During your preoperative discussion, do you explain to her as informed consent that she could die during anesthesia?

Discussion:   “Hi, Mrs. Smith,” the anesthesiologist said.  “It looks like you are in good health. I need to tell you that there is about a 1 in 100,000 chance that you could die from your anesthetic. I need to tell you that so you don’t sue me if you die.  Don’t look so worried, Mrs. Smith.  Do you have any questions?”

“Yes.  What is that sticker on your forehead?” she asked.

“It says ‘I just got out of residency yesterday,’”  the doctor answered with a smile.

Sound absurd?  Let’s start by looking at  data that  is available on anesthetic risks.  A review article by Jenkins and Baker  summarizes the incidence of mortality and morbidity associated with anesthesia.  The authors conducted a Medline search from 1966 to the present for all anesthesia publications with keywords relevant to mortality and morbidity.

Anesthetic-related mortality was found to be rare.   The incidence of death related to anesthesia was 1:50,000, and the incidence in ASA I and II patients was 1:100,000.  Total perioperative mortality within 30 days of surgery was much higher, with rates of 1:200 for elective surgery, and 1:40 for emergency surgery.  Thirty day mortality was two times higher in 60-79 year olds,  five times higher in 80-89 year olds, and  seven times higher in patients over 90 years old.

What were the most common complications of anesthesia?  The complications and their incidences  were:  drowsiness (1:2), sore throat after tracheal tube (1:2), pain (1:3), post-op nausea and vomiting (1:4), dizziness (1:5), headache (1:5), and sore throat after laryngeal mask (1:5).

Informed consent is a discussion of the risks and benefits of the anesthetic proposed, and discussion of any alternative methods available.  It is followed by documentation that the patient understands and consents to the plan.  Our original question today regarded what risks to discuss.  Per Benumof and Saidman (Anesthetic and Perioperative Complications, Mosby, 1999, 781-2), “There must be a balance between giving enough information to allow a reasoned decision and frightening the patient with a long list of potential, extremely rare, severe complications, the latter making a trusting doctor-patient relationship difficult.”

I collected opinions  from  20 private-practice anesthesiologist colleagues at Stanford via e-mail.   Only one of  the twenty replied that he would tell the hysterectomy patient that she could die.  He cited the philosophy that if she consented despite the risk of death, that any smaller complication such as the loss of her singing voice due to the endotracheal tube, was trivial in comparison.

Another private attending disagreed, using the following reasoning, which I agree with:  “If you tell the healthy patient that they could die, and they die, you are still in trouble.   If you  do something negligent and you are sued,  you will lose the lawsuit, despite your anxiety-producing informed consent.”

For healthy patients, most private attendings discuss only the common risks such as drowsiness, pain, nausea, and sore throat.  Many  ask if the patient wants to know any more details about more serious risks.  If the patient wants to, the anesthesiologist will then give more information about incidence of serious complications, possibly quoting numbers such as the 1:50,000 to 1:100,000 noted above.  Others will reassure each patient with a statement such as  “anesthesia is safer than the risk you take each time you drive your car on a freeway,” implying that you could  have a  bad outcome in either situation, yet not using the words “you could die.”  For less healthy patients, older patients,  emergency or more complex surgeries, the increased risks  are discussed  so the patient can make a well-informed choice.

In discussing the risks of anesthesia to healthy patients, I commonly say, “The chance that any serious complication to your heart, lungs, brain, or blood pressure is very close to zero, but it’s not zero.  If anything unexpected occurs, I will be right there with you the entire time, and based on my training and experience, I will do the right thing for you.”  This sentence informs them that although risks are rare, risks are possible, and reassures the patient that their anesthesiologist is there to treat any unexpected problems.

The purpose of obtaining consent is to  give the patient  enough information to make an informed decision whether to agree to the anesthetic plan, or not.  Most private-practice anesthesiologists at Stanford would handle the informed consent for today’s patient without telling her she could die.  Patients are nervous enough when they put on the gown and hop onto that gurney before surgery.

 

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