Exact data is difficult to come by for several reasons: 1) death from anesthesia is extremely rare, so gathering data for a denominator is a massive undertaking; 2) most deaths around the time of surgery occur from a combination of causes, of which the anesthetic may be only minor, 3) the nature of the American legal system encourages practitioners to be defensive and secretive. The best available data comes from a study of over 100,000 anesthetics in the early 70’s in Wales. Retrospective analysis there found that roughly one in 10,000 patients died from the anesthesia “alone” and that two in 10,000 died as a result, at least to some degree, of the anesthesia management.

Though it has not been well quantified, most informed sources put the risk today at well less than half of what it was in the 1970’s. Of note, 8.1% of the patients in the Welsh study received anesthetics that have not been used in the US in at least 15 years. Additionally, we get newer, better drugs all the time. Combined with the advent of pulse oximetry, carbon dioxide monitoring, and better training of personnel we believe the risk of dying today is closer to 1 in 50,000.

Posted in: General Anesthesia