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Can You Sue an Anesthesiologist for Medical Malpractice?

When going in for a medical procedure, most patients don’t think twice when the doctor says they will be put under anesthesia for the treatment. Many patients just assume it is safe and it will be a way for them to avoid the pain and discomfort of going through treatment while conscious. A lot of patients don’t even question if there are alternatives. 

There are common side effects of anesthesia, which include nausea, vomiting, confusion, and a sore throat. However, there are also more serious side effects and adverse consequences of anesthesia. When an anesthesiologist isn’t following standard medical recommendations, it can cause serious injuries. The doctor may also be to blame if they didn’t properly inform the patient about the possible consequences of anesthesia procedures. 

Unfortunately, most patients undergoing anesthesia have no idea what happened when they were under. They go from counting backward to waking groggy and confused hours later. If something went wrong during surgery and you are having a hard time getting answers, you may need to turn to a malpractice law firm for support. 

When a doctor or anesthesiologist causes a medical injury, they should be held responsible for their actions. A medical malpractice lawsuit is a way for the injury victim and their family to recover financial compensation from the negligent doctor. If you believe you were a victim of anesthesiologist malpractice, contact an experienced medical malpractice law firm to get damages for your injuries. 

What Is an Anesthesiologist?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Anesthesiologists are doctors who carefully monitor patients throughout surgery and during recovery. They use highly advanced electronic devices that constantly display patients’ blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, heart function, and breathing patterns.”

In the United States, the use of chemicals to provide pain relief for patients goes back almost 200 years. In the early days, doctors would use ether to erase “painful memories” of medical procedures. Chloroform was another early anesthetic to ease the pains of childbirth and other procedures. As doctors, dentists, and surgeons continued to experiment, they discovered new drugs and techniques that offered helpful results, including breathing nitrous oxide, administering cocaine, spinal blocks, epidural injections, and ketamine and propofol injections.

The practice of anesthesia has come a long way and anesthesiologists have a variety of chemicals, medications, and administration techniques to fine-tune anesthesia for patients. Depending on the needs of the medical procedure, anesthesiologists can put a patient in various states of reduced consciousness for a matter of minutes to hours. The effects of anesthesia can include: 

  • Immobilization  
  • Unconsciousness
  • Pain relief

When Is an Anesthesiologist Responsible for Medical Injuries?

An anesthesiologist is a type of medical professional. In personal injury laws, medical professionals are held to a different standard than other people. Medical malpractice cases are about professional negligence. 

For example, in a car accident, negligence can be shown by a driver acting in an unreasonable way that caused an accident, like running a red light or texting and driving. Anyone can say what is reasonable or unreasonable when driving because most people are familiar with the rules of the road. However, medical procedures are different because most people aren’t familiar with medical standards

In a medical malpractice case involving an anesthesiologist, the injury victim has to prove the following elements, more likely than not: 

  • The anesthesiologist had a duty to the patient;
  • The anesthesiologist deviated from the standards of medical care when treating the patient;
  • The anesthesiologist’s actions caused injury to the patient; and
  • The patient suffered harm as a result. 

The breach of the duty of care is shown by a deviation from standard medical practices. One way to think of it is if the anesthesiologist did something most anesthesiologists would not do (or didn’t do something a reasonable doctor would do). This is a deviation from medical standards. If that deviation was the cause of the patient’s injuries, the anesthesiologist can be held legally responsible for the patient’s damages. 

How Do You Prove an Anesthesiologist’s Medical Negligence?

Since the jury isn’t made up of other anesthesiologists, how are they supposed to know what the standard medical practices are for a given situation? This is where a medical expert comes into play. Your medical malpractice attorney can find an anesthesiologist with the professional education, training, and medical experience to provide an expert report on liability and causation in your injury case.

Most medical malpractice lawsuits actually require an expert witness. Expert witnesses can help a jury where scientific, technical, or other specialized knowledge will assist the trier of fact to understand the evidence or to determine a fact in issue. Even when you file a malpractice lawsuit against an anesthesiologist, your attorney may have to use an expert witness to provide a certificate of a qualified expert within 90 days of filing the complaint.  

Most Common Anesthesiology Procedures

Anesthesiology is becoming more and more common in all types of procedures, from major surgery to minor in-patient procedures. Even when a patient has concerns about the use of anesthesiology, doctors will generally steer them towards using anesthesiology because it can make the job of the doctor or surgeon easier. 

Anesthesiology is also commonly covered for many procedures by insurance companies, Medicare, and Medicaid. If the insurance company will pay for it, it can mean more money for the clinic and the anesthesiologist. From the medical provider’s point of view, there are limited situations where they wouldn’t prefer using an anesthesiologist. 

Some of the most common medical procedures that involve the use of an anesthesiologist include: 

  • Moderate sedation 
  • Upper GI tract endoscopy
  • Eye lens surgery
  • Lower intestine screening colonoscopy
  • Lower intestine endoscopy
  • Lower abdomen screening
  • Vaginal delivery
  • Lower abdomen surgery
  • Upper abdomen surgery 
  • Lower leg bone surgery
  • Thorax surgery
  • Oral procedures
  • Lower arm surgery 
  • Knee joint surgery 
  • Knee arthroplasty
  • Cesarean delivery (C-section)
  • CAT or MRI scan
  • Emergency anesthesia 

Moderate sedation for patients is the most common anesthesia procedure and may account for 8-9% of anesthesia procedure claims. This is a general tool for various routine medical procedures that can benefit from a patient being in a state of reduced consciousness without being asleep or unconscious. 

What Can Happen When Anesthesia Goes Wrong?

There are known risks of any medical procedure, including anesthesia. These risks are often categorized based on how common they are and how serious they can be. The more common (and generally less serious) consequences are generally classified as “side effects.” More serious conditions that may be less common are known as adverse effects.  

Some of the common side effects of general anesthesia include: 

  • Nausea 
  • Vomiting
  • Sore throat
  • Postoperative delirium 
  • Muscle aches
  • Itching
  • Chills and shivering 

More serious complications can include postoperative delirium or cognitive dysfunction that can last longer than a few hours or days. It can result in confusion, memory loss, learning problems, and long-term memory impairment.  

Monitored anesthesia or IV sedation (without putting a patient under) also carries risks of side effects, including: 

  • Headaches
  • Minor back pain
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Bleeding under the skin
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)
  • Nerve damage

Localized anesthesia and regional anesthesia generally have a lower risk of side effects and complications. However, there are risks and you should talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about localized anesthesia or regional anesthesia procedures. 

Adverse Effects of Drugs to Treat Anesthesia Side Effects

Anesthesiologists are aware that anesthesia drugs can make patients feel nauseous. To counteract this, anesthesiologists can use other drugs to address the nausea side effects. These drugs are known as antiemetics, for the treatment of or prevention of postoperative nausea and vomiting. 

Unfortunately, the drugs used to treat side effects have their own side effects. At a certain point, a patient may be surprised to find out how many different drugs were given to them while they were unconscious.  

In 2001, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a “black box” warning for a common antiemetic, droperidol. A black box warning is the most serious type of warning the FDA can give to a medication. The black box is meant to highlight the serious nature of the life-threatening side effects or serious risks. In this case, high doses of droperidol had a potential for sudden cardiac death in psychiatric patients. Revised warnings also suggested a risk even at low doses. 

Are There Long-Term Effects of General Anesthesia?

When doctors and anesthesiologists are promoting great advances in anesthesia, they may be slow to recognize developing science that highlights the dangers. General anesthesia can make surgery easier, help patients avoid pain, and be adapted for use in most patients—but at what cost?

A recent article published in the Journal of Anesthesia addressed the “Lasting effects of general anesthetics on the brain in the young and elderly: “mixed picture” of neurotoxicity, neuroprotection, and cognitive impairment.”

As the abstract points out, “It has been long held an illusory concept that the general anesthesia is entirely reversible and that the central nervous system is returned to its pristine state once the anesthetic agent is eliminated from the active site.” It appears that general anesthesia is not entirely reversible in some patients. It can have long-lasting effects on the young and the elderly. 

For older people, elderly patients are commonly observed showing signs of cognitive disturbance following general anesthesia. This can present as postoperative delirium (POD) and postoperative cognitive dysfunction (POCD). POD is generally temporary and lasts for days or weeks. However, POCD can present in different ways, in the deterioration of memory, attention span, or cognitive function over months and years. 

What Are the Risks of Anesthesia for Pregnant Women and Children?

The FDA has issued warnings about the use of general anesthesia and sedation drugs in young children and pregnant women. According to the FDA, repeated or lengthy use of general anesthetic and sedation in children younger than 3 or pregnant women in their 3rd trimester is warned against because it “may affect the development of children’s brains. 

According to the study in the section above, “Multiple rounds of anesthetic exposure, and in young children under 2–4 years of age, were associated with learning difficulty and academic underachievement during childhood and adolescence.”

According to the FDA, parents, caregivers, and pregnant women should discuss the potential adverse effects of anesthesia on brain development, treatment delays, and timing of procedures so that it won’t risk their child’s health. However, your doctor may have their own beliefs about anesthesia, so don’t just take their word for it without understanding all the risks, benefits, and alternatives to anesthesia. 

Anesthesiologist Training and Education

According to the American Board of Anesthesiology, for initial board certification, anesthesiologists need 4 years of training and 7 years for the board-eligible period and practice requirement. There  are a number of subspecialties that require additional training and assessment by the board, including: 

  • Adult Cardiac Anesthesiology
  • Critical Care Medicine
  • Health Care Administration, Leadership, and Management
  • Hospital and Palliative Medicine
  • Neurocritical Care
  • Pain Medicine
  • Pediatric Anesthesiology
  • Sleep Medicine

How Can a Medical Malpractice Lawyer Help After an Anesthesia Error?

Anesthesia errors can cause immediate damage or they can lead to long-term damage. The problem with this is that while severe adverse events like a heart attack, stroke, or infection injury may develop in the short term, long-term effects might not be known for months or years. 

For example, if a pregnant woman is given anesthesia which has an adverse impact on her child’s brain development, how long would it take for the damage to be understood? Like other brain injuries in newborns, like hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy (HIE), it can take years before parents and pediatricians can recognize the damage. The long-term effects can take years and first show up as the child missing developmental milestones at the 6-month, 9-month, 1-year, 18-month, or even 2-year marks. 

Don’t rely on the anesthesiologist to tell you when something went wrong. If you think something might have gone wrong during your medical procedure under the effects of anesthesia, talk to an experienced medical malpractice attorney for advice. 

With a medical malpractice lawsuit, you can recover the costs of medical bills, loss of income, loss of income potential, future medical needs, and pain and suffering. A lawsuit could also help other people avoid similar injuries or losses. Call experienced medical malpractice attorneys who can look at your case, answer your questions, and help file a claim against a negligent anesthesiologist. Contact Gilman & Bedigian online or at 800-529-6162 for a free consultation.


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