A study by the American Society of Anesthesiologists in April of 2009 revealed that there were 2,211 anesthesia related deaths between 1999 and 2005. Of these deaths, 47% were the result of general anesthesia overdose – a preventable medical error. The problem for anesthesiologists is finding a balance between an amount of anesthesia sufficient to ensure that the patient does not wake up while simultaneously protecting against anesthesia awareness. Anesthesia awareness occurs when a patient wakes up during surgery. These patients can experience pain and feel the surgery while still being unable to move or talk. Studies have indicated that about 1.5 in 1000 patients experience anesthesia awareness. In order to compensate for this, anesthesiologists routinely overmedicate by twenty to thirty percent. Too much anesthesia can result in death, temporary mental impairment, or permanent brain damage whereas too little can lead to anesthesia awareness.
Anesthesiologists have been traditionally trained to monitor patients’ vital signs during surgery such as oxygen levels in the blood, breathing, circulation, blood pressure and temperature in order to assess the effectiveness of anesthesia. However Dr. Barry Friedburg argues that patient safety would be increased if anesthesiologists monitored patients’ brain activity instead of these traditional vital signs. Brain activity can be monitored with a $25 dollar sensor that sits on top of a patient’s forehead which can measure the individual anesthetic responses of each patient. Freidburg argues that brain monitoring could prevent the aforementioned anesthesia overdoses and should be adopted as the standard of care for general anesthesiology moving forward as opposed to the current model of overmedication compensation. Brain monitors are currently available in only half the operating rooms in the United States but many patients will not be monitored at those hospitals in less they specifically ask.