Adverse Respiratory Events Infrequently Leading to Malpractice Suits A Closed Claims Analysis

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Abstract

Adverse outcomes associated with respiratory events are the single largest class of injury in the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims Project (762 of the 2,046 cases, 37%). Inadequate ventilation, esophageal intubation, and difficult tracheal intubation are the most common mechanisms of respiratory-related adverse outcomes. An analysis of closed claims data regarding these mechanisms has been reported previously. This report is concerned with 300 claims for five other less common but important categories of respiratory-related adverse outcomes in which recurrent themes of management error or patterns of injury could be identified: airway trauma, pneumothorax, airway obstruction, aspiration, and bronchospasm. Airway trauma (97 claims, 5% of the database) was associated with difficult intubation in 41 (42%) of the cases and the most frequent sites of injury were the larynx, pharynx, and esophagus. Pneumothorax (67 cases, 3% of the database) was usually either needle-related (block or central vascular catheter placement) or airway management-related (instrumentation or barotrauma). Airway obstruction (56 claims, 3% of the database) occurred in the upper airway in 39 (70%) of the cases. Aspiration (56 claims, 3% of the database) usually occurred during general anesthesia, either during induction prior to tracheal intubation or during maintenance of anesthesia delivered via mask. Bronchospasm (40 claims, 2% of the database) tended to occur during induction of general anesthesia in patients with a history of asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and/or smoking. The incidence of severe injury (brain damage and death) among these cases in the five categories was 47% overall, ranging from 12% in airway trauma claims to nearly 90% in claims for airway obstruction and bronchospasm. Overall, 89% of the adverse events in this report represent problems with airway management, emphasizing the critical nature of this endeavor in providing patient safety during anesthesia.

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