Liability Associated with Obstetric Anesthesia

Article (PDF Available)inAnesthesiology 110(1):131-9 · January 2009with66 Reads
DOI: 10.1097/ALN.0b013e318190e16a · Source: PubMed
Abstract
Obstetrics carries high medical liability risk. Maternal death and newborn death/brain damage were the most common complications in obstetric anesthesia malpractice claims before 1990. As the liability profile may have changed over the past two decades, the authors reviewed recent obstetric claims in the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims database. Obstetric anesthesia claims for injuries from 1990 to 2003 (1990 or later claims; n = 426) were compared to obstetric claims for injuries before 1990 (n = 190). Chi-square and z tests compared categorical variables; payment amounts were compared using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Compared to pre-1990 obstetric claims, the proportion of maternal death (P = 0.002) and newborn death/brain damage (P = 0.048) decreased, whereas maternal nerve injury (P < 0.001) and maternal back pain (P = 0.012) increased in 1990 or later claims. In 1990 or later claims, payment was made on behalf of the anesthesiologist in only 21% of newborn death/brain damage claims compared to 60% of maternal death/brain damage claims (P < 0.001). These payments in both groups were associated with an anesthesia contribution to the injury (P < 0.001) and substandard anesthesia care (P < 0.001). Anesthesia-related newborn death/brain damage claims had an increased proportion of delays in anesthetic care (P = 0.001) and poor communication (P = 0.007) compared to claims unrelated to anesthesia. Newborn death/brain damage has decreased, yet it remains a leading cause of obstetric anesthesia malpractice claims over time. Potentially preventable anesthetic causes of newborn injury included delays in anesthesia care and poor communication between the obstetrician and anesthesiologist.
PAIN MEDICINE
Anesthesiology 2009; 110:131–9 Copyright © 2008, the American Society of Anesthesiologists, Inc. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.
Liability Associated with Obstetric Anesthesia
A Closed Claims Analysis
Joanna M. Davies, F.R.C.A.,* Karen L. Posner, Ph.D., Lorri A. Lee, M.D., Frederick W. Cheney, M.D.,§
Karen B. Domino, M.D., M.P.H.
Background: Obstetrics carries high medical liability risk.
Maternal death and newborn death/brain damage were the
most common complications in obstetric anesthesia malprac-
tice claims before 1990. As the liability profile may have
changed over the past two decades, the authors reviewed recent
obstetric claims in the American Society of Anesthesiologists
Closed Claims database.
Methods: Obstetric anesthesia claims for injuries from 1990
to 2003 (1990 or later claims; n 426) were compared to
obstetric claims for injuries before 1990 (n 190). Chi-square
and z tests compared categorical variables; payment amounts
were compared using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test.
Results: Compared to pre-1990 obstetric claims, the propor-
tion of maternal death (P 0.002) and newborn death/brain
damage (P 0.048) decreased, whereas maternal nerve injury
(P < 0.001) and maternal back pain (P 0.012) increased in
1990 or later claims. In 1990 or later claims, payment was made
on behalf of the anesthesiologist in only 21% of newborn
death/brain damage claims compared to 60% of maternal
death/brain damage claims (P < 0.001). These payments in both
groups were associated with an anesthesia contribution to the
injury (P < 0.001) and substandard anesthesia care (P < 0.001).
Anesthesia-related newborn death/brain damage claims had an
increased proportion of delays in anesthetic care (P 0.001)
and poor communication (P 0.007) compared to claims un-
related to anesthesia.
Conclusion: Newborn death/brain damage has decreased, yet
it remains a leading cause of obstetric anesthesia malpractice
claims over time. Potentially preventable anesthetic causes of
newborn injury included delays in anesthesia care and poor
communication between the obstetrician and anesthesiologist.
THE practice of obstetrics carries a high medicolegal risk
that has reached crisis proportions during the past de-
cade.
1–5
The 2006 American College of Obstetricians and
Gynecologists survey on professional liability showed
that 89% of respondents had been sued during their
careers, with an average of 2.6 claims per obstetrician.#
The majority of claims were related to newborn injury,
with 31% associated with newborn brain injury and 16%
related to stillbirth or neonatal death.# Nearly 39% of
specialists in obstetrics and gynecology in Massachusetts
had a professional liability payment made on their behalf
between 1996 and 2005.
2
Sixty percent of malpractice
insurance premiums paid by obstetricians are used to
cover lawsuits for alleged birth-related cerebral palsy.
6
It is unclear whether this increased liability extended
to anesthesiologists involved in obstetric care. Nearly
two decades ago, a review of liability associated with
obstetric anesthesia using the American Society of Anes-
thesiologists (ASA) Closed Claims database found that,
although awards to plaintiffs were higher in obstetric
claims from the 1970s and 1980s, there were more
claims for minor complications in obstetric compared to
nonobstetric claims.
7
The most common complications
in obstetric claims were newborn death or brain damage
(29%) and maternal death (22%).
7
Over the past three
decades, there have been numerous changes in the prac-
tice of anesthesiology in general
8
and in the practice of
obstetric anesthesia specifically.
9–11
The use of general
anesthesia, particularly for elective Cesarean sections,
has decreased, and the use of epidural anesthesia for
labor analgesia has increased. In addition, there has been
increasing recognition that only a minority of cases of
newborn encephalopathy are related to intrapartum
hypoxia, most of which are not preventable by actions of
care givers.
5,12–18
We therefore compared the liability
profiles in obstetric anesthesia claims from injuries aris-
ing in 1990 or later to the pre-1990 claims. We specifi-
cally explored the contribution of newborn death and
brain damage compared to maternal death and brain
damage to obstetric anesthesia liability in 1990 or later
claims.
Materials and Methods
The ASA Closed Claims Project is a structured evalua-
tion of adverse anesthetic outcomes obtained from the
closed claim files of 35 United States professional liability
This article is featured in “This Month in Anesthesiology.”
Please see this issue of ANESTHESIOLOGY, page 9A.
This article is accompanied by an Editorial View. Please see:
Leighton BL: Why obstetric anesthesiologists get sued. ANES-
THESIOLOGY 2009; 110:8–9.
* Assistant Professor, Research Professor, Associate Professor, § Professor
Emeritus, Professor, Department of Anesthesiology, University of Washington
School of Medicine.
Received from the Department of Anesthesiology, University of Washington
School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington. Submitted for publication June 16,
2008. Accepted for publication September 26, 2008. Supported by the American
Society of Anesthesiologists, Park Ridge, Illinois. All opinions expressed are
those of the authors and do not reflect the policy of the American Society of
Anesthesiologists.
Address correspondence to Dr. Davies: Department of Anesthesiology, Box
356540, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, Washington
98195. jodavies@u.washington.edu. This article may be accessed for personal use
at no charge through the Journal Web site, www.anesthesiology.org.
# Wilson N, Strunk AL: Overview of the 2006 survey on professional liability
–American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Available at www.
acog.org/departments/professionalliability/2006surveyNatl.pdf, Accessed May
21, 2008.
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009 131
insurance companies. Claims for dental damage are not
included in the database.
The data collection process has been previously de-
scribed in detail.
19,20
Briefly, a closed claim file was
reviewed at the professional liability insurance company
by a practicing anesthesiologist. The file typically con-
sisted of relevant hospital and medical records, narrative
statements from involved healthcare personnel, expert
and peer reviews, summaries of depositions from plain-
tiffs, defendants, and expert witnesses, outcome reports,
and the cost of settlement or jury award. The reviewer
completed a standardized form and narrative summary
that recorded information about patient characteristics,
surgical procedures, sequence and location of events,
critical incidents, clinical manifestations of injury, stan-
dard of care, and outcome. Forms and summaries com-
pleted by the on-site anesthesiologist reviewer were sub-
sequently reviewed by a physician member of the
central Closed Claims Committee before incorporation
in the database.
The physical or psychological injury for which the
patient was seeking compensation was recorded in each
claim. There was no apparent injury in some claims, and
some claims had multiple injuries. In the case of brain
damage followed by death, death was considered the
complication. The patient and newborn in each claim
were assigned a severity of injury score that was desig-
nated by the on-site reviewer using the insurance indus-
try’s 10-point scale that rates severity of injury from 0 (no
injury) to 9 (death). For the purposes of analysis, injuries
were grouped into temporary/nondisabling (score
0–5) versus permanent/disabling (score 6–8) versus
death (score 9). The damaging event that caused the
injury was determined by the on-site anesthesiologist
reviewer and confirmed by the Closed Claims Commit-
tee. Appropriateness of anesthesia care was rated as
appropriate (standard), substandard, or impossible to
judge on the basis of reasonable or prudent practice at
the time of the event by the on-site reviewer. A previ-
ously published study found reliability of reviewer judg-
ments to be acceptable.
21
From the ASA Closed Claims Project database of 7328
cases, those associated with obstetric procedures that
occurred from 1990 to 2003 (1990 or later) were in-
cluded for the current study. These claims were re-
viewed again in detail by two of the authors (JMD, KBD).
These claims (1990 or later) were then compared to
obstetric claims for procedures that occurred before
1990 (n 190) and were reported previously by Chad-
wick et al.
7
(pre-1990). Most of these claims (92%)
reported by Chadwick et al. involved procedures that
occurred between 1975 and 1985.
7
Obstetric claims
were classified as associated with vaginal delivery or
Cesarean section on the basis of the delivery mode that
occurred. Planned vaginal delivery that was changed to
Cesarean section was classified as Cesarean section. If
both regional and general anesthesia were administered,
the claim was classified according to the technique as-
sociated with the injury in the claim.
Claims from 1990 or later for maternal and newborn
death or permanent brain damage were independently
classified as anesthesia-related by two of the authors
(JMD, KBD) if there was a possible anesthesia contribu-
tion to the injury. Two claims for newborn permanent
brain damage were excluded from this analysis because
the alleged newborn brain damage was not substanti-
ated. In claims in which there was disagreement about
anesthesia-related injury, classification was resolved after
discussion. Specific maternal, obstetric, and newborn
factors associated with maternal and newborn death/
brain damage were abstracted from the narrative sum-
maries of these claims. The presence of anesthesia
factors such as alleged anesthesia delay, neonatal resus-
citation by the anesthesiologist, and poor communica-
tion between the anesthesiologist and the obstetrician
(usually concerning the urgency of the Cesarean section)
were also abstracted from the summaries of claims for
newborn death/brain damage.
Payments were adjusted to 2007 dollar amounts using
the Consumer Price Index.** In a subset of claims in
which adequate information was available on the
datasheet (for claims collected after 2000 due to a revi-
sion of the datasheet) or narrative summary, payments
were separated into payments on behalf of the anesthe-
siologist (i.e., on behalf of an anesthesiologist, anesthe-
siology group, resident, or certified registered nurse
anesthetist) and total payments by all parties.
Statistical Analysis
Differences in categorical variables in patient charac-
teristics, injuries, and liability between pre-1990 and
1990 or later claims were compared using the Chi-square
tests and Fisher exact test, with specific comparisons
made using the z test if the overall Chi-square test was
statistically significant. Age in years was compared in the
two groups using Student t test. Payment amounts (ex-
cluding $0 and missing data) were compared in the two
groups using the Kolmogorov-Smirnov test. Kappa sta-
tistics were calculated between two raters (JMD, KBD)
on the independent classification of anesthesia-related
versus nonanesthesia-related for maternal and neonatal
death/brain damage claims in the 1990 or later time
period. The relationship between anesthesia-related
claims and other factors such as anesthesia delay, poor
communication, substandard care, and payment on be-
half of the anesthesiologist (and anesthesia care team or
anesthesia group) in these claims was determined using
Fisher exact test. All statistical analysis was conducted
** Consumer Price Index Inflation Calculator. U.S. Department of Labor,
Bureau of Labor Statistics. Available at http://www.bls.gov/data/home.htm, Ac-
cessed May 30, 2008.
132 DAVIES ET AL.
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
with SPSS 12.0.1 for Windows (SPSS Inc, Chicago, IL).
Confidence intervals for proportions were calculated as
equal-tailed Jeffreys prior intervals according to SPSS
Resolution Number 37680. Statistical significance was
accepted at P 0.05. For multiple comparisons of pay-
ments with newborn death/brain damage, maternal
nerve injury, and maternal minor injuries compared to
maternal death/brain damage, a Bonferroni correction
was used.
Results
Comparison of 1990 or Later Claims versus
Pre-1990 Claims
There were 426 claims associated with obstetric anes-
thesia from 1990 or later (246 [58%] Cesarean section
and 180 [42%] vaginal delivery). Compared to pre-1990
claims (n 190), the proportion of obstetric claims from
1990 or later associated with Cesarean section decreased
(P 0.029) and the proportion of claims associated with
general anesthesia decreased (P 0.001; table 1).
The pattern of injuries in the claims also changed over
time. Compared to pre-1990 claims, the proportion of
obstetric claims from 1990 or later associated with ma-
ternal death (P 0.002) and newborn death or brain
damage (P 0.048) decreased (fig. 1). In contrast, the
proportion of obstetric claims from 1990 or later associ-
ated with maternal nerve injury (P 0.001) and back
pain (P 0.012) increased (fig. 1). Respiratory causes of
injuries decreased in claims from 1990 or later (24% in
pre-1990 claims vs. 4% in 1990 or later claims, P 0.001;
table 1). Claims related to inadequate oxygenation/ven-
tilation (P 0.006), aspiration of gastric contents (P
0.012), and esophageal intubation (P 0.007) decreased
in 1990 or later claims, whereas claims related to difficult
intubation did not change (table 1).
Compared to pre-1990 claims,
7
the proportion of
claims with substandard care decreased, and appropriate
care increased in 1990 or later claims (P 0.001; table
1). The proportion of claims with payment to the plain-
tiff decreased from 58% in pre-1990 claims to 42% in
1990 or later (P 0.001; table 1). Although median
payments tended to be higher in pre-1990 claims, the
Table 1. Characteristics of Obstetric Anesthesia Claims Pre-1990 and 1990 or Later
Pre-1990* 1990 or Later P Value
Proportion of perioperative claims† 190 (12%) 426 (13%) NS
Mean age, yr (SD) 28 (5) 29 (6) 0.044
Mode of delivery
Cesarean section 127 (67%) 246 (58%) 0.029
Vaginal delivery 63 (33%) 180 (42%) 0.029
Primary anesthetic
Regional anesthesia 124 (65%) 342 (80%) 0.001
General anesthesia 62 (33%) 73 (17%) 0.001
Other or unknown 4 (2%) 11 (3%) NS
Respiratory damaging event 46 (24%) 17 (4%) 0.001
Aspiration of gastric contents 8 (4%) 2 ( 1%) 0.012
Difficult intubation 10 (5%) 11 (3%) NS
Esophageal intubation 7 (4%) 0 (0%) 0.007
Inadequate oxygenation/ventilation 10 (5%) 3 (1%) 0.006
Standard of care
Substandard care 74 (39%) 92 (22%) 0.001
Appropriate 87 (46%) 293 (69%) 0.001
Impossible to judge 29 (15%) 41 (10%) NS
Payment made‡ 100 (58%) 164 (42%) 0.001
Adjusted total payment in 2007 dollars
Median $455,000 $222,000 NS
Range $1,539–$19,656,000 $1,196–$18,400,000
* Data from pre-1990 previously published and used with permission of author and publisher.
7
† Claims for chronic pain management excluded from 1990 and
later. Missing data excluded.
P values obtained by t test (age), z test (proportions), and Kolmogorov-Smirnov test (payment amounts).
NS not statistically significant (P 0.05); SD standard deviation.
Fig. 1. Comparison of injuries in obstetric anesthesia claims
before and after 1990. Data from pre-1990 previously published
and used with permission of author and publisher.
7
* P< 0.05
comparing the two time periods by z test.
133OBSTETRIC ANESTHESIA LIABILITY
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
ranges of payments were very broad and were not signifi-
cantly different between the two time periods (table 1).
Detailed Review of Obstetric Claims from 1990
or Later
Overview of Injuries and Liability. The most com-
mon injuries leading to obstetric claims in 1990 or later
were newborn death/brain damage (21%) and maternal
nerve injury (21%; fig. 1). Claims for maternal minor
injuries (e.g., headache, back pain, pain during surgery,
and emotional distress) made up a large proportion
(28%) of obstetric claims.
Liability characteristics for selected maternal and new-
born injury claims are shown in figure 2. A payment was
made on behalf of the anesthesiologist in only 21% of
claims for newborn death/brain damage (fig. 2). A pay-
ment was made on behalf of the anesthesiologist more
frequently in claims for maternal death/brain damage
than for newborn death/brain damage (P 0.001, fig.
2). Payment amounts for newborn and maternal death/
brain damage were similar. Payment amounts for mater-
nal nerve injury and minor injuries were reduced com-
pared to maternal death/brain damage (P 0.001).
Major Complications.
Newborn Death/Brain Damage. Most (71%) claims
for newborn death/brain damage (n 91) were associ-
ated with a nonreassuring fetal heart tracing and urgent
or emergent Cesarean section (table 2). Anesthesia care
was judged as having a possible contribution in only 22%
of newborn death/brain damage claims (kappa 0.84;
P 0.001). Other factors observed in newborn death/
brain damage claims included a variety of maternal and
fetal conditions known to be associated with newborn
encephalopathy (table 2).
When compared to newborn death/brain damage
claims with no anesthesia contribution, anesthesia delay
(P 0.001), poor communication (P 0.007), and
substandard anesthesia care (P 0.001) occurred more
frequently when anesthesia care may have contributed
to the newborn outcome (fig. 3). The anesthesia delays
in the 11 newborn death/brain damage claims ranged
from 10 to 70 min, with a mean delay of 40 min (SD
22 min). Delay due to anesthesia care was a factor in 11
(55%) of 20 anesthesia-related newborn death/brain
damage claims (fig. 3). The anesthesiologist was not in
the hospital for approximately half (n 6) of these
cases. Poor choice of anesthesia technique, with inap-
propriate prolonged attempts to administer regional
rather than general anesthesia, probably contributed to
some of the delays (n 3). Poor communication be-
tween the obstetrician and anesthesiologist, primarily
regarding the urgency of the Cesarean section, also con-
tributed to nearly two thirds of the anesthesia delays
(n 7). Other anesthesia contributions to newborn
Fig. 2. Liability associated with injuries in 1990 and later obstet-
ric claims (n 426). White bars proportion of payment by all
parties. Hatched bars proportion of payment on behalf of
anesthesiologist. Black bars proportion of substandard care.
Median payment by all parties is shown in 2007 dollars above
bars showing payments. Missing data are excluded from pay-
ment proportions and amounts
1
. Claims with maternal and
newborn injury (n 7) were excluded from statistical compar-
isons between these groups. * P< 0.001 compared to same de-
pendent variable in maternal death/brain damage group. Bon-
ferroni correction was used for multiple comparisons.
Proportions compared by z test; payment amounts compared
by Kolmogorov-Smirnov test.
Table 2. Factors in Newborn Death/Permanent Brain Damage
(n 91) 1990 or Later
Factor n %
Nonreassuring fetal heart tracing* 65 71%
Urgent/emergency Cesarean section* 65 71%
Possible anesthesia contribution 20 22%
Maternal coexisting conditions 14 15%
Umbilical cord problems 11 12%
Uterine rupture† 8 9%
Abnormal placenta 8 9%
Chorioamnionitis or maternal fever 7 8%
Fetal congenital abnormality 7 8%
Meconium aspiration 6 7%
Breech presentation 6 7%
Less than 34 wk gestation 4 4%
* Fifty-five cases (60%) included both factors. † Six of eight associated with
attempted vaginal birth after Cesarean section (VBAC).
Fig. 3. Factors associated with anesthesia contribution to new-
born death/brain damage. Anesthesia delay, poor communica-
tion between obstetrician and anesthesiologist, and substan-
dard anesthesia care were associated with anesthesia
contribution. * P < 0.01 by z test.
134 DAVIES ET AL.
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
death/brain damage included difficult intubation result-
ing in maternal hypoxia (n 4) and profound hypoten-
sion after neuraxial block (n 4). Care was judged to be
substandard in 82% of claims in which anesthesia care
may have contributed to newborn death/brain damage
(fig. 3).
There was a significant association of payment by the
anesthesiologist with possible anesthesia contribution to
the newborn injury (P 0.001; table 3). Payment on
behalf of the anesthesiologist was also associated with
the judgment of substandard anesthesia care (P 0.001;
table 3). A payment was made on behalf of the anesthe-
siologist in only 7 claims (10%) in which anesthesia care
was judged as not contributing to the newborn death/
brain damage.
Nerve Injury. Nerve injury (n 89) was the leading
maternal injury in obstetric claims from 1990 or later,
most of which was temporary or nondisabling (80%). All
but one nerve injury was associated with regional anes-
thesia, and nerve injury was more commonly associated
with vaginal delivery than with Cesarean section (P
0.001). Most cases of nerve injury (63%) could have been
caused by the administration of regional anesthesia as
evaluated by the on-site anesthesiologist reviewer, but
no specific event leading to nerve injury could be iden-
tified in 18 claims (20%), and 12 (13%) were related to
patient condition or delivery. Radiculopathy of a lumbar
or sacral root accounted for the majority of injuries
(table 4). Spinal cord injury resulted in paraplegia in 10
nerve injury claims (11%). When known, the etiology for
spinal cord injuries was epidural hematoma (n 4, only
1 of which had a coagulopathy), epidural abscess (n
4), direct injection into the cord (n 2), and anterior
spinal artery syndrome (n 1). The majority of nerve
injury claims were judged to have appropriate care, and
payment was made by the anesthesia providers in fewer
than one third of claims for nerve injury (fig. 2).
Maternal Death/Brain Damage. Causes of maternal
death (n 47) and permanent brain damage (n 22)
with general (n 28) or regional (n 41) anesthesia are
shown in table 5. The most common anesthetic causes
of maternal death/brain damage in claims associated
with general anesthesia were difficult intubation and
maternal hemorrhage (table 5). The seven difficult intu-
bation injuries occurred between 1991 and 1998, mostly
upon induction (six of seven cases). These claims in-
volved multiple intubation attempts leading to progres-
sive difficulty with ventilation. In two of the claims,
tracheal intubation was assessed preoperatively as being
possibly difficult, with a backup plan to awaken the
patient and perform fiberoptic intubation. However,
progressive airway difficulties occurred while attempt-
ing to awaken the patient. In two claims, general anes-
thesia was induced after failed regional block.
Maternal hemorrhage was associated with an inability
of the anesthesiologist to keep up with blood loss de-
spite best efforts (n 10) and with inadequate fluid
replacement in which it should have been possible to
resuscitate during surgical bleeding (n 1). Causes of
maternal hemorrhage included subcapsular hepatic
bleeding in a preeclamptic patient, placenta previa (n
2), placenta accreta/placenta percreta (n 2), and uter-
ine rupture (n 1).
The most common anesthetic cause of maternal death/
brain damage in regional anesthesia claims was high
neuraxial block (n 15; table 5). Twelve claims in-
volved epidural anesthesia (ten accidental intrathecal
injections, two high epidural blocks), and three claims
Table 3. Factors Associated with Anesthesia Payments for Newborn Death/Permanent Brain Damage 1990 or Later
Anesthesia Payment (n 17) 95% CI No Payment (n 63) 95% CI P Value
Anesthesia contribution to injury 10 (59%) (36–79%) 3 (5%) (1–12%) 0.001
Appropriateness of care
Substandard 9 (53%) (30–75%) 3 (5%) (1–12%) 0.001
Appropriate 7 (41%) (21–64%) 52 (83%) (72–90%) 0.001
Impossible to judge 1 (6%) (1–24%) 8 (13%) (6–23%) NS
Alleged anesthesia delay 7 (41%) (21–64%) 12 (19%) (11–30%) NS
Communication problems 5 (29%) (12–53%) 6 (10%) (4–19%) NS
Newborn resuscitation by anesthesiologist 4 (24%) (9–47%) 9 (14%) (7–24%) NS
Total n 91. Table excludes 11 claims with unknown anesthesia payments. Table includes 3 claims that also had maternal death (2 paid, 1 not paid).
CI confidence interval; NS not statistically significant (P 0.05); P values obtained by z test.
Table 4. Nerve Injury Associated with Obstetric Anesthesia
(n 89) 1990 or Later
Overall
(n 89), %
Vaginal
Delivery
(n 52), %
Cesarean
Section
(n 37), %
Location of nerve injury
Radiculopathy of lumbar
or sacral nerve root
48 (54) 24 (46) 24 (65)
Spinal cord injury 16 (18) 11 (21) 5 (14)
Paraplegia 10 (11) 9 (17) 1 (3)
No paraplegia 6 (7) 2 (4) 4 (11)
Femoral nerve 9 (10) 7 (13) 2 (5)
Sciatic nerve 8 (9) 5 (10) 3 (8)
Cauda equina syndrome 3 (3) 0 (0) 3 (8)
Long thoracic nerve 1 (1) 0 (0) 1 (3)
Brachial plexopathy 1 (1) 0 (0) 1 (3)
Nonspecific nerve injury 6 (7) 6 (12) 0 (0)
Percentages may not add to 100% due to rounding errors and multiple nerve
injuries in some claims.
135OBSTETRIC ANESTHESIA LIABILITY
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
involved subarachnoid blocks. Half (53%) were placed
for vaginal delivery, and half (47%) were placed for
Cesarean section. Most high blocks associated with epi-
dural anesthesia occurred with dosing of the epidural
after negative aspiration for cerebrospinal fluid and an
uneventful test dose (generally involving a test dose of
45–80 mg of lidocaine). In two claims, epidurals were
repeated at a different interspace due to a wet tap. A
high subarachnoid block occurred in two patients de-
spite usual doses of local anesthetic. In most (80%) of the
cases of high neuraxial block, there was a delay in
recognizing and/or treating the sequelae of the high
block (n 12). In two of these cases, inadequate mon-
itoring contributed to the delay, and four of these pa-
tients had to be transferred to the operating room for
resuscitation due to inadequate emergency airway
equipment or drugs in the labor room. Care was judged
as substandard in most (73%) of the claims involving
high neuraxial block.
Neuraxial cardiac arrest (defined as the sudden onset
of severe bradycardia or cardiac arrest during neuraxial
block in the absence of a high block with relatively
stable hemodynamics preceding the event)
22
occurred
in two claims. Of note, there were no claims for maternal
death/brain damage due to intravascular injection of
local anesthetic. Other causes of maternal death/brain dam-
age included maternal conditions, as shown in table 5.
Claims for maternal death/brain damage were judged
as having a possible anesthesia contribution in 64% of
claims (kappa 0.85; P 0.001). There was a signifi-
cant association of payment by the anesthesiologist with
possible anesthesia contribution (P 0.001) and sub-
standard anesthesia care (P 0.007). However, in five
claims, payment was made on behalf of the anesthesiol-
ogist despite the lack of possible anesthesia contribution
to the injury. Factors cited as contributory to payment in
these claims included illegible, inaccurate, and incom-
plete anesthetic records (such as a 30-min gap in the
record at the time of the critical events), anesthesiologist
with poor English language skills or who failed boards
multiple times, and damaging comments from the obste-
trician concerning the anesthesia care.
Discussion
The major finding of this closed claims review is that,
compared to pre-1990 obstetric claims, the proportion
of maternal death and newborn death/brain damage de-
creased in obstetric claims from 1990 or later, whereas
the proportion of claims for maternal nerve injury in-
creased. Claims for newborn death/brain damage re-
sulted in a lower frequency of payments on behalf of
anesthesiologists (21%) than maternal death/brain dam-
age claims (60%). Anesthesia-related claims for newborn
death/brain damage were associated with anesthesia de-
lay, poor communication, and substandard anesthesia
care.
Limitations of the ASA Closed Claims Database
Analysis of data collected from the ASA Closed Claims
project has a number of limitations that have been pre-
viously described.
19,20,23
The database does not contain
claims on all adverse anesthetic events, and it lacks
denominator data on the number of anesthetics per-
formed annually. Only claims from participating liability
insurance organizations are included. Consequently, risk
for specific injuries and populations cannot be esti-
mated. Due to the large number of variables examined,
false positive findings may result. Other limitations in-
clude only modest interobserver agreement regarding
appropriateness of care
21
and outcome bias in the judg
-
ment of standard of care.
24
Although the long statute of
limitations for newborn injury may result in incomplete
claims data for newborn brain damage, the year of injury
is similar in maternal and newborn claims in this study.
Table 5. Causes of Maternal Death/Permanent Brain Damage (n 69) 1990 or Later
Overall (n 69), % General Anesthesia (n 28), % Regional Anesthesia (n 41), %
High neuraxial block 15 (22) 0 (0) 15 (37)
Maternal hemorrhage 11 (16) 8 (29) 3 (7)
Embolic events 8 (12) 2 (7) 6 (15)
Difficult intubation 7 (10) 7 (25) 0 (0)
Preeclampsia/HELLP syndrome 5 (7) 3 (11) 2 (5)
Medication 5 (7) 0 (0) 5 (12)
Inadequate oxygenation/ventilation 3 (4) 1 (4) 2 (5)
Aspiration of gastric contents 2 (3) 1 (4) 1 (2)
Neuraxial cardiac arrest 2 (3) 0 (0) 2 (5)
Hypertensive intracranial hemorrhage 2 (3) 1 (4) 1 (2)
Central venous catheter 1 (1) 1 (4) 0 (0)
Chorioamnionitis/ARDS 1 (1) 1 (4) 0 (0)
Airway obstruction 1 (1) 1 (4) 0 (0)
Other/unknown 6 (9) 2 (7) 4 (10)
Percentages do not sum to 100% due to rounding error.
ARDS adult respiratory distress syndrome; HELLP hemolysis, elevated liver enzymes, low platelet count.
136 DAVIES ET AL.
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
For the purposes of this analysis, we combined claims
for death and brain damage because they represent a
continuum of severity of injury with similar damaging
events. In contrast, other analyses of patterns of injury
have focused primarily upon maternal death and new-
born brain injury. Despite these deficiencies, the data-
base provides useful information on large numbers of
rare adverse events and a snapshot of liability in the
practice of anesthesiology.
Comparison of Liability Pre-1990 and Post-1990
Our finding of a decrease in proportion of claims for
maternal death and increase in the proportion of nerve
injury in the 1990 or later claims compared to earlier
claims
7
may reflect changes in anesthesia practice in
general
8
and in obstetric anesthesia practice specifically
over the last three decades.
9–11
These surveys have
shown a steady decrease in use of general anesthesia for
elective Cesarean sections, along with an increase in use
of epidural anesthesia for labor analgesia.
9–11
In addi
-
tion, the decrease in the proportion of claims for mater-
nal death mirrors those in the closed claims database at
large,
25
and it may reflect changes in drugs, training, an
emphasis on safety, changes in legal strategies, or other
events. Decreases in respiratory events in the 1990 or
later obstetric claims are probably associated with the
use of respiratory system monitors in modern anesthesia
practice,
8
the decrease in the use of general anesthesia in
obstetric practice, and the enhanced awareness of the
risk of aspiration of gastric contents in the obstetric
patient.
26
Although claims for newborn death and brain
damage still remain a frequent (21%) claim against anes-
thesiologists, the reduction in these claims over time is
probably related to the recognition beginning in the
mid-1980s that most cases of newborn brain injury are
not related to birth asphyxia.
5,12–18
Current evidence
suggests most cases of newborn brain damage are due to
antenatal factors, and only a minority are related to
intrapartum hypoxia, most of which are not prevent-
able.
5,12–18
Increasing public awareness of these antena
-
tal factors may further reduce anesthesiologists’ liability
for these claims in the future.
Newborn Death and Brain Damage
Anesthesiologist exposure to newborn injury claims
may occur because the anesthesiologist serves as a “deep
pocket” (especially in the case of an underinsured ob-
stetrician). Although anesthesiologists may be named on
a lawsuit, our study found that anesthesiologist liability
(e.g., payments) for newborn death/brain damage was
limited, most likely because the obstetrician is primarily
responsible for fetal wellbeing.
Obstetric, not anesthetic, causes are more common for
peripartum hypoxic brain injury.
27
Therefore, working
with obstetricians to decrease the incidence of this new-
born death and brain damage is probably the best way to
reduce anesthesiologists’ liability. We found that anes-
thetic events were rare; other than an intraoperative
catastrophe (e.g., difficult intubation, high block, severe
hypotension), more than half of anesthesia-related
events involved an anesthesia delay that resulted from
being away from the hospital or from a poor choice of
anesthesia technique. A decision to start of Cesarean
delivery interval for emergency Cesarean section within
30 min is the international standard for fetal compro-
mise.
8
‡‡
Although the scientific evidence to support the
standard is weak,
29,30
failure to meet this target time may
be part of the judgment of the substandard care.
28
The
anesthesia care team should therefore ensure that the
patient is ready for surgical incision within 30 min of
the decision for Cesarean section; if exceeded, thor-
ough documentation of the reason for delay in the
medical record is essential.
Newborn outcome may be improved by better com-
munication between obstetrician and anesthesiologist,
particularly concerning the urgency of Cesarean section.
In our review, more than a third of anesthesia-related
newborn death and brain damage had poor communica-
tion between the obstetrician and anesthesiologist. In a
2004 Joint Commission Sentinel Event Alert,§§ the lead-
ing preventable cause of neonatal death and brain dam-
age in 47 cases was miscommunication between care
providers. In many practices, anesthesiologists are on-
call for obstetrics from home. This practice may be
acceptable in low-risk cases; however, in high-risk pa-
tients (e.g., patients desiring vaginal birth after Cesarean
section who are at higher risk of uterine rupture), a delay
in time to get to the hospital can prove fatal to both
mother and baby. Failure to communicate the urgency of
a Cesarean section may compound this issue and result
in an inappropriate choice of anesthesia technique. Em-
phasis on improved communication between all provid-
ers caring for individual patients, especially those at high
risk, may therefore help avoid poor outcomes.
31
Maternal Death and Brain Damage
The most common anesthetic causes of maternal death
or permanent brain damage in the claims included diffi-
cult intubation, maternal hemorrhage, and high
neuraxial block, consistent with anesthetic causes of
death in published reports.
32–35
There were no claims
related to intravascular injection of local anesthetics,
consistent with changes in clinical practice in the mid-
1980s with the withdrawal of 0.75% bupivacaine in ob-
‡‡ American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA) Standards, Guidelines and
Statements: Optimal Goals for Anesthesia Care in Obstetrics. Available at http://
www.asahq.org/publicationsAndServices/standards/24.html, Accessed June 2,
2008.
§§ The Joint Commission Sentinel Event Alert: Preventing infant death and
injury during delivery. Issue 30, July 21, 2004. Available at http://www.jointcom-
mission.org/SentinelEvents/SentinelEventAlert/sea_30.htm, Accessed July 16,
2008.
137OBSTETRIC ANESTHESIA LIABILITY
Anesthesiology, V 110, No 1, Jan 2009
stetrics and increased use of test doses and fractionated
administration of local anesthetics.
26
The use of a test
dose and incremental dosing of epidural catheters is
recommended for early detection of accidental intrathe-
cal injection and prevention of high neuraxial block.
36
However, delays in recognizing and treating cardiorespi-
ratory collapse secondary to a high block as well as
inadequate resuscitation equipment continue to result in
maternal injury. Even more cautious incremental dosing
of epidurals may aid in early detection of an accidental
intrathecal injection and prevent a high block. In the
event of a high neuraxial block, all staff should be famil-
iar with the location of the code cart equipped with
appropriate equipment and drugs. All epidural carts
should include airway equipment and emergency drugs
to allow for immediate resuscitation.
Although Mhyre et al.
35
did not find any cases of
anesthesia-related death on induction of general anesthe-
sia in their review of 15 anesthesia-related or anesthesia-
contributing maternal deaths in the state of Michigan
between 1985 and 2003, difficult intubation resulting in
death/brain damage occurred upon induction of anes-
thesia in our review. These claims originate from injuries
in 1991 to 1998 and largely predate widespread use of
the laryngeal mask airway as a bridge in the management
of difficult intubation. Although our numbers are small,
the leading causes of nonanesthesia maternal death/
brain damage also reflect those reported in the literature
(e.g., embolism, hemorrhage, and hypertensive disease
of pregnancy).
32,34
Our finding that claims for maternal death/brain dam-
age resulted in a higher frequency of payments on behalf
of anesthesiologists reflects an increased likelihood of an
anesthesia contribution to the maternal injury compared
to newborn injury. In addition, it reflects the ASA policy
that the anesthesiologist is primarily responsible for the
mother and that personnel other than the surgical team
should assume responsibility for resuscitation of the de-
pressed newborn.‡‡ Payments made on behalf of anes-
thesiologists for maternal death/brain damage were also
associated with the judgment of substandard anesthesia
care; however, outcome bias may have confounded this
judgment.
24
Maternal Nerve Injury
Our finding that nerve injury is the most common
injury associated with obstetrical anesthesia claims re-
flects the increased liability for nerve injury with re-
gional anesthesia.
37
Although a regional block may have
caused the nerve injury in nearly two thirds of the nerve
injury claims in our review, nerve injury resulting from
obstetric causes (e.g., pregnancy, vaginal delivery, fetal
position, maternal position during the second stage of
labor) is more likely than nerve injury resulting from
regional anesthesia.
38
A good knowledge of neuroanat
-
omy together with specialist neurologic examination
and appropriate investigation, such as electromyogra-
phy, can aid in the accurate diagnosis of nerve inju-
ries. Serious disabling spinal cord injuries resulting in
paraplegia were noted in 11% of nerve injury claims,
with causes consistent with those described in the
literature.
39–41
Conclusions
Newborn death/brain damage has decreased, but it
still remains a common injury leading to obstetric anes-
thesia malpractice claims. Maternal nerve injury and
newborn death/brain damage were the most common
complications in obstetric anesthesia malpractice claims
from 1990 or later. Claims for newborn death/brain
damage resulted in a lower frequency of payments on
behalf of anesthesiologists than maternal death/brain
damage claims. Anesthesia-related claims for newborn
death/brain damage were associated with anesthesia de-
lay, poor communication, and substandard anesthesia
care in response to difficult intubation or block-related
hypotension. Delays in diagnosis and resuscitation of
high neuraxial block were preventable causes of mater-
nal death/brain damage.
The authors thank John Campos, M.S., Research Consultant, and Linda Ste-
phens, Ph.D., Research Scientist, for data management and also thank Lynn
Akerlund, Research Coordinator, for secretarial assistance. They are members of
the Closed Claims Project research staff in the Department of Anesthesiology at
the University of Washington, Seattle, Washington. The authors also thank the
closed claims reviewers from the American Society of Anesthesiologists and the
following liability insurance companies who have given permission to be ac-
knowledged: Anesthesia Service Medical Group, Inc., San Diego, California;
Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Silver Spring, Maryland; Ascension Health,
St. Louis, Missouri; COPIC Insurance Company, Denver, Colorado; Department
of Veterans Affairs, Washington, D.C.; The Doctors’ Company, Napa, California;
ISMIE Mutual Insurance Company, Chicago, Illinois; MAG Mutual Insurance
Company, Atlanta, Georgia; Medical Liability Mutual Insurance Company, New
York, New York; Midwest Medical Insurance Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota;
Mutual Insurance Company of Arizona, Phoenix, Arizona; NORCAL Mutual In-
surance Company, San Francisco, California; Pennsylvania Medical Society Lia-
bility Insurance Company, Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania; Physicians Insurance A
Mutual Company, Seattle, Washington; Physicians Insurance Company of Wis-
consin, Madison, Wisconsin; Preferred Physicians Medical Risk Retention Group,
Shawnee Mission, Kansas; ProMutual (Medical Professional Mutual Insurance
Company), Boston, Massachusetts; Risk Management Foundation, Cambridge,
Massachusetts; State Volunteer Mutual Insurance Company, Brentwood, Tennes-
see; The University of Texas Medical System, Austin, Texas; Utah Medical Insur-
ance Association, Salt Lake City, Utah.
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139OBSTETRIC ANESTHESIA LIABILITY
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