Background: The purpose of this study was to identify the patterns of liability associated with malpractice claims arising from management of the difficult airway.
Methods: Using the American Society of Anesthesiologists Closed Claims database, the authors examined 179 claims for difficult airway management between 1985 and 1999 where a supplemental data collection tool was used and focused on airway management, outcomes, and the role of the 1993 Difficult Airway Guidelines in litigation. Chi-square tests and multiple logistic regression analysis compared risk factors for death or brain damage (death/BD) from two time periods: 1985-1992 and 1993-1999.
Results: Difficult airway claims arose throughout the perioperative period: 67% upon induction, 15% during surgery, 12% at extubation, and 5% during recovery. Death/BD with induction of anesthesia decreased in 1993-1999 (35%) compared with 1985-1992 (62%; P < 0.05; odds ratio, 0.26; 95% confidence interval, 0.11-0.63; P = 0.003). In contrast, death/BD associated with other phases of anesthesia did not significantly change over the time periods. The odds of death/BD were increased by the development of an airway emergency (odds ratio, 14.98; 95% confidence interval, 6.37-35.27; P < 0.001). During airway emergencies, persistent intubation attempts were associated with death/BD (P < 0.05). Since 1993, the Airway Guidelines were used to defend care (8%) and criticize care (3%).
Conclusions: Death/BD in claims from difficult airway management associated with induction of anesthesia but not other phases of anesthesia decreased in 1993-1999 compared with 1985-1992. Development of additional management strategies for difficult airways encountered during maintenance, emergence, or recovery from anesthesia may improve patient safety.