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When Colonoscopies Dig Too Deep

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It is not uncommon for patients undergoing colonoscopies to suffer adverse events or effects from the procedure. Each year, more than 14 million people are screened for colon cancer, and more than 5 million colonoscopy procedures are performed in the United States alone. These procedures can result in perforated colons, poisoning, kidney damage, and missed diagnoses. Nationwide it is estimated that up to 2.5% of patients undergoing a colonoscopy will experience an adverse event during or as a result of the procedure.

Perforated Colons & Infections

Careless insertion of the endoscope can lead to a perforated rectosigmoid colon. The most common cause of perforation is when the physician applies too much force to the endoscope at the rectosigmoid junction. If the perforation is not repaired promptly via a laparotomy, it can allow bacteria to enter the bloodstream which can lead to sepsis. In turn, this causes organ failure. For patients in good health, sepsis carries a mortality rate of up to 30%. For patients with compromised immune systems, that rate rises to 60%.

Infections can also occur if medical equipment is not properly sterilized. These occur when physicians and healthcare providers fail to follow standard infection control protocols. Common examples include failing to wear sterilized protective scrubs, improper storage of intravenous solutions, and improper cleaning of endoscopic devices.

Perforated colons can also cause considerable discomfort to the patient including secondary peritonitis and abdominal pain and distension. These can have a considerable impact on a patient’s comfort and ability to work or perform basic functions. 

Bleeding Injuries 

Perforations of any point within the bowel can lead to uncontrolled bleeding. This can require surgery to correct as well as the administration of blood transfusions. In addition to the discomfort and inconvenience these cause, they can also expose the patient to bloodborne pathogens and increase the chance of damage to organ systems that can diminish long-term function. 

Sedation & Preparation Injuries

Both general and local sedation carries considerable risks, Patients undergoing colonoscopies can experience respiratory arrest, heart attack, or strokes if the sedative is improperly administered or if the patient has an allergic reaction to the sedative being used. The risks associated with general anesthesia increase with a patient’s age; the older the patient, the greater the possibility that they will experience an adverse event caused by the anesthetics applied during a colonoscopy. 

While rare, patients can also experience kidney failure following the administration of the oral sodium phosphate solution used to cleanse the colon. This has a considerable impact on life expectancy and can result in the need for long-term dialysis treatment.  

Fires & Burns

Methane and hydrogen gas are often present within the colon during a colonoscopy even after proper preparation for the procedure. The electrosurgical generator used to supply electrical current to the endoscope generates enough energy to cause these highly explosive gasses to combust. The explosive results can perforate the colon and cause serious internal and external burns to the patient. 

The Dangers of Missed Diagnosis

It is estimated that up to 33% of polyps are missed during colonoscopies. Most of these are missed in the ascending colon. When a polyp is missed, it can lead to the development or progression of colorectal cancer. As the disease develops, it becomes more costly to treat, and potentially more lethal. For example, the five-year survival rate for Stage 1 colorectal cancer is 92%, whereas the survival rate for Stage IV colorectal cancer is only 11%. Nationwide, colon cancer is the second leading cause of cancer-related deaths. When a physician misses potentially cancerous polyps within the colon, they increase the risk of a patient developing a fatal cancer diagnosis. 

Assigning Physician Liability

Doctors owe a duty of care to the patients they treat. Physicians and medical teams performing colonoscopic procedures can be held liable for breaching this duty in the performance of a colonoscopy. Such failures include not securing informed consent prior to the procedure, failing to diagnose or treat conditions that should have been discovered during the procedure, and for complications that result from negligent conduct that occurred during the colonoscopy or in the recovery period.

Physicians can also be held liable for failing to identify potential complications based on the patient’s medical history and health status. These include failing to identify potential allergic reactions to anesthetic and the potential for colon or bowel perforation when diverticulitis or other health condition are documented.

A Chicago medical malpractice attorney may pursue both economic and non-economic damages following a botched procedure. Economic damages include those related to medical expenses, treatment costs, lost wages, and long-term care expenses. Non-economic damages include intangible costs such as loss of consortium, pain and suffering, and disfigurement. It should be noted that Illinois law does not allow victims to pursue punitive damages in medical malpractice cases even when a physician or member of the medical team acted maliciously or with gross negligence. 

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