medical malpractice involving anaesthesia

Medical malpractice involving anaesthesia can have devastating consequences for victims and their families – and sadly, it’s not uncommon in South Africa.

According to health24, a lack of medical knowledge and experience are contributing to “an inexcusable number of maternal deaths from spinal anaesthesia in South Africa.”

There’s also growing concern about deaths in children due to dentistry-related anaesthesia. Especially in district hospitals, it’s far too often the case that young, inexperienced doctors are left to administer anaesthetic – sometimes with tragic consequences.

As well as causing deaths, improperly administered anaesthesia may result in significant injuries, from paralysis to brain damage.

Below we discuss the following:

Risks of anaesthesia

Like surgery, anaesthesia always involves some element of risk. Even with highly qualified anaesthetists and strict adherence to protocols, it can have negative results.

For example, general anaesthetic commonly results in post-operative confusion, nausea and shivering. More seriously, it can result in long-term memory and learning problems,  heart attack, pulmonary embolism or even brain damage.

Especially if improperly administered, epidural or spinal anaesthesia can lead to:

  • postdural puncture headache due to leaked cerebrospinal fluid
  • limb damage due to sensory and motor block
  • hypotension and bradycardia
  • respiratory failure
  • direct nerve and spinal damage or infection
  • aseptic meningitis, and other conditions.

Common types of anaesthesia-related errors

It’s important to note that patients may die or suffer serious injuries as a result of anaesthesia and surgery, without any indication of medical malpractice or negligence.

Also, it can be tricky to separate the roles played by anaesthesia, a surgical procedure and the patient’s underlying condition in causing a particular outcome.

However, anaesthesia-related errors or omissions by a medical professional may constitute medical malpractice.

Common examples of medical malpractice involving anaesthesia include:

  • incorrect intubation – serious injury can occur when the patient is not intubated properly, or a clear airway is not maintained throughout the surgery
  • monitoring failure – failure to monitor the patient’s vital signs or regulate oxygen intake during an operation can lead to brain damage and even death
  • communication failure – failure to inform the surgical team of a patient’s condition and vital signs before, during and after surgery can lead to serious complications
  • incorrect administration – administering the wrong dose or type of anaesthesia can cause coma or brain injury
  • anaesthetic awareness – administering too little anaesthesia may result in the patient waking up in the middle of surgery and experiencing trauma, panic and extreme pain.

Claiming compensation for anaesthesia malpractice in SA

In South Africa, you may be able to claim compensation if you or a close family member has suffered injury or a family member has died as a result of an anaesthesia-related error.

The key to a successful anaesthesia malpractice claim is providing sufficient evidence that a healthcare practitioner acted in a way contrary to accepted healthcare standards, and that this resulted directly in harm.

Proving anaesthesia malpractice is complex and highly technical.

It usually involves the testimony of expert medical witnesses, who review the patient’s pre-operative health and risk factors, and assess whether the correct processes and procedures were followed.

Who is liable for anaesthesia-related negligence?

Typically, there are two possible defendants in cases of anaesthetic malpractice – the hospital or the anaesthetist.

Where the medical professional who served as an anaesthetist is permanently employed by a hospital, the hospital itself may be liable for damages through what’s known as vicarious liability.

An anaesthetist who’s a private practitioner may be held personally liable for damages.


Choosing a lawyer for an anaesthesia-related malpractice claim

If you have a claim for injury due to medical malpractice involving anaesthesia, it’s essential to have an experienced legal team in your corner.

It’s also best to opt for attorneys who specialise in personal injury law. They are more likely than general legal practitioners to have suitable legal expertise, as well as a network of medical contacts. See our article on the importance of medical connections when choosing an attorney for more information about this.

At DSC Attorneys, our team of attorneys and medico-legal experts has extensive experience in handling medical malpractice claims. Contact us for legal representation that’s effective, ethical and delivered with compassion. We operate on a no win, no fee basis.

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