Litigation related to airway and respiratory complications of anaesthesia: an analysis of claims against the NHS in England 1995–2007

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SummaryClaims notified to the NHS Litigation Authority in England between 1995 and 2007 and filed under anaesthesia were analysed to explore patterns of injury and cost related to airway or respiratory events. Of 841 interpretable claims the final dataset contained 96 claims of dental damage, 67 airway-related claims and 24 respiratory claims. Claims of dental damage contributed a numerically important (11%), but financially modest (0.5%) proportion of claims. These claims predominantly described injury during tracheal intubation or extubation; a minority associated with electroconvulsive therapy led to substantial cost per claim. The total cost of (non-dental) airway claims was £4.9 million (84% closed, median cost £30 000) and that of respiratory claims was £3.3 million (81% closed, median £27 000). Airway and respiratory claims account for 12% of anaesthesia-related claims, 53% of deaths, 27% of cost and ten of the 50 most expensive claims in the dataset. Airway claims most frequently described events at induction of anaesthesia, involved airway management with a tracheal tube and typically led to hypoxia and patient death or brain injury. Airway trauma accounted for one third of airway claims and these included deaths from mediastinal injury at intubation. Pulmonary aspiration and tube misplacement, including oesophageal intubation, led to several claims. Among respiratory claims, ventilation problems, combined with hypoxia, were an important source of claims. Although limited clinical details hamper analysis, the data suggest that most airway and respiratory-related claims arise from sentinel events. The absence of clinical detail and denominators limit opportunities to learn from such events; much more could be learnt from a closed claim or sentinel event analysis scheme.

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