Recently, we have seen a number of medical malpractice cases in Ohio arising out of a physician’s failure to protect a patient from consequences of sleep apnea. Sleep apnea occurs when a person experiences abnormal pauses in breathing, or abnormally low breathing, during sleep. Each pause in breathing can last from a few seconds to minutes, and may occur 5 to 30 times or more an hour, thereby depriving the body of its usual supply of oxygen. Sleep apnea increases the patient’s risk for a number of medical conditions and complications. When a doctor fails to account for sleep apnea in their treatment plan, disastrous results from medical negligence may occur.
Sleep apnea is associated with an ever-increasing list of medical conditions. In the short-run, sleep apnea can cause fatigue, which is associated with obvious social and safety consequences. The long-term effects of sleep apnea include an increased risk of death from cancer, increased blood pressure, complications associated with anesthesia, and an increased risk of various cardiac anomalies such as atrial fibrillation and congestive heart failure.
The diagnosis of sleep apnea has improved through the use of sleep studies. Treatment of sleep apnea has likewise been revolutionized through the use of continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) to maintain normal breathing patterns, as well as medications, dieting, oral devices, surgery and promising alternative treatments.
Medical malpractice cases related to sleep apnea arise in two distinct ways. First, a healthcare provider may fail to diagnose and treat sleep apnea, leading to either long-term complications or misdiagnosis and improper treatment. Second, the healthcare provider may fail to take precautions to protect the apneic patient’s airway.
As an example, we handled a case involving a patient who sustained significant brain injury due to complications from apnea during his recovery from anesthesia. In addition, we are currently investigating a case involving failure of a CPAP machine, with resulting death, due to an electrical outage. Federal regulations specifically require hospitals and nursing homes to have an operational backup power system for lifesaving equipment such as CPAP.
Sleep apnea is a common condition that is easily fixed in a number of ways. Left undiagnosed, untreated or ignored, it can be deadly or lead to unnecessary treatments or complications. When that happens, there exists a potential claim for medical malpractice under Ohio’s laws.