Advances in the medical speciality of anaesthesiology mean that it’s much safer than it once was to be anaesthetised. Nonetheless, cases of death and injuries due to anaesthesia malpractice are still alarmingly high in South Africa.

Death and injuries from anaesthesia

There are three main types of anaesthesia – general, regional and local.

General anaesthesia, which is when the patient is completely unconscious, is the riskiest of these because the patient’s breathing is arrested as part of the procedure. Accordingly, whilst the patient is under general anaesthesia, they need to be intubated to breathe.

Some of the complications that can arise from general anaesthesia include:

  • post-operative pain
  • nausea and vomiting
  • mental confusion
  • allergic reaction
  • pneumonia
  • brain damage from oxygen starvation
  • stroke or blood clots
  • heart attack
  • paralysis
  • coma
  • death.

In rare cases, anaesthesia awareness can occur. This is when a patient regains consciousness during an operation.

It’s the anaesthetist’s job to avoid these complications by administering the correct doses of anaesthetic agents and monitoring patients while they are unconscious.

Some complications can occur even when anaesthetic is administered properly. However, if incompetence or negligence by the anaesthetist can be established, a medical malpractice claim can be pursued.

Cases of improperly administered anaesthesia

In 2012, a two-year-old boy was given an incorrect dosage of anaesthetic agent by an anaesthetist in Vereeniging. The anaesthetist also failed to monitor the boy’s blood pressure during the operation and didn’t wait in the recovery room to make sure the boy woke up.

The boy failed to start breathing again and, tragically, died. His parents pursued civil action against the anaesthetist.

DSC Attorneys have similarly dealt with a tragic case where a two-year-old child went for a routine dental procedure at a local Stellenbosch Hospital in order to have a tooth extracted.

The procedure itself lasted just a few minutes but the child was not monitored properly and, as a result, suffered permanent brain damage. The matter was later settled for a substantial sum.

Unusually high numbers of malpractice cases involving obstetric anaesthesia are reported in South Africa. Otherwise healthy mothers are dying due to a lack of skilled and experienced anaesthetists, especially in rural areas.

Dr Gillian Lamacraft, a specialist anaesthetist at the University of the Free State, spoke of these avoidable deaths in an interview with What’s New DOC.

“I feel like crying when, during yet another investigation into an obstetric maternal death, I discover that the young, healthy mother died because the medical officer forgot to turn on the oxygen supply,” she said.

Medical negligence involving anaesthesia

If a patient dies due to anaesthesia malpractice, a family member who has suffered a loss of support and/or related provable damages may be able to pursue a medical malpractice claim against the anaesthetist or the hospital where the anaesthetic was administered.

Patients who suffer complications that result in otherwise preventable injuries or long-lasting side effects may also have grounds for medical malpractice claims.

Examples of errors by an anaesthetist that could constitute malpractice include:

  • giving incorrect dosages of anaesthetic
  • failing to monitor a patient under anaesthetic
  • failing to recognise complications
  • not delivering adequate oxygen to the patient
  • improper pre-op preparation, including insufficient or incorrect instructions to the patient
  • poor intubation, resulting in damage to the teeth, throat or mouth
  • failure to protect the airway during anaesthetic mobilisation, leading to displacement of the endo-tracheal tube leading to cardiac and respiratory arrest.

For an anaesthesia malpractice claim to be successful, the claimant has to be able to demonstrate that there was negligence on the part of the anaesthetist.

As a patient, note that you have the right to access your medical records, including records related to the administration of anaesthetic. For example, your records should indicate the type of anaesthetic and the dose you were given.


Medical malpractice claims with DSC Attorneys

At DSC Attorneys, our attorneys and medico-legal team have extensive experience in handling medical malpractice claims, including those involving anaesthesia.

We can assess your claim, help organise any necessary medical examinations, help prepare supporting evidence and represent you in legal proceedings, giving you the best chance of receiving the compensation you deserve. We also work on a no win, no fee basis.

Contact us for more information or to discuss your anaesthesia malpractice claim.

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