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Anesthesia errors reduced despite hospital pushback

Many patients fear "going under" general anesthesia for common operations because of the risk of a serious anesthesia negligence injury. Possible complications from anesthesia include brain damage and death, but these complications have been greatly reduced in the past few decades due to the work of Boston doctors and the Massachusetts Society of Anesthesiologists.

The Boston Globe reports that electronic monitoring systems for anesthesia patients have allowed anesthesia-related deaths to drop from 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 200,000 in under two years. Of course this means that anesthesia still leads to the wrongful death of many patients despite the new monitoring systems.

"Patient safety is not a fad,'' a prominent safety advocate said. "It is not a preoccupation of the past. It is not an objective that has been fulfilled or a reflection of a problem that has been solved. Patient safety is an ongoing necessity.''

In addition to overdoses and misapplications of anesthesia, another cause of patient death was improper ventilation during general anesthesia. Some patients died because a breathing tube was improperly placed in the esophagus instead of the trachea, The Boston Globe reports. When undetected, this error causes the patient to suffocate and the old ways of checking if a patient was breathing were ineffective.

"Before, they were only listening to breath sounds," says the chairman of the department of anesthesia at New England Baptist Hospital.

Electronic monitors can now detect the presence of carbon dioxide in a patient's lungs to detect any irregularities in the oxygen level of blood. The use of these monitors was hampered by some hospitals that balked at the cost of the patient safety measures. Doctors were able to push for the monitors by seeking the help of insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry, who are major stakeholders in the anesthesia industry.

The increasing attention to patient safety is ongoing despite the efforts of some hospitals that prioritize financial considerations over the patient safety. Safety advocates, insurers and medical malpractice attorneys continue to lead the drive for better patient outcomes and less risky trips to the hospital.

Source: The Boston Globe, "Dr. Ellison Pierce; improved safety of anesthesia; at 82," Neal Riley, 4/26/11

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