Malpractice Litigation Involving Iatrogenic Surgical Vocal Fold Paralysis: A Closed-Claims Review with Recommendations for Prevention and Management

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Abstract

Objectives:

We describe the nature of malpractice claims filed involving surgical iatrogenic vocal fold paralysis, review surgical literature for recommendations for prevention of this complication, and suggest management of this complication.

Methods:

Data collection was made regarding any closed claims that involved vocal fold paralysis. The results were then analyzed and categorized. The PubMed literature regarding this complication was reviewed, and recommendations on prevention were compiled. Finally, suggestions regarding management based on the current literature and the senior author's 17-year experience in his laryngeal practice are offered.

Results:

From 1986 to 2007, 112 closed claims involving vocal fold paralysis were reported by the 16 largest malpractice insurers. More than US $10 million ($18 million adjusted for inflation [AJI]) has been paid thus far. The average indemnity was $285,000 ($513,000 AJI). The surgical physician defendants were from multiple specialties, including general surgery (31%), cardiothoracic surgery (12%), neurosurgery (12%), otolaryngology (10%), and orthopedic surgery (5%). The most common procedures were thyroid and parathyroid surgery (32%), cervical disc procedures (16%), thoracic procedures (12%), endarterectomy (9%), and open neck biopsy (6%). The most common claims cited were improper performance (61%), failure to recognize a complication (36%), and consent issues (19%).

Conclusions:

Vocal fold paralysis is a complication of many different surgical procedures across multiple specialty lines. Closed-claims analysis can offer a unique glimpse on what went wrong and why patients sue. Modification of techniques and incorporation of new technology may significantly reduce this complication. Preoperative written information on potential complications, and early referral to and management by laryngeal specialists, we believe, may significantly reduce malpractice litigation.

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