A colonoscopy is one of the most sensitive tests for detecting colon cancer, but it is not without risk. Every medical procedure carries risk, and anyone undergoing a procedure should be given a warning about the potential complications. However, if you make an informed decision and something goes awry, you have not necessarily forfeited your right to recovery.
Providing your informed consent is not a “get out of jail free” card for medical negligence. Healthcare providers performing colonoscopies can make errors. The cause and extent of the injury determines whether a medical malpractice case is actionable.
How is a colonoscopy performed?
Medical screenings such as colonoscopies are used to help identify abnormalities in your colon and rectum that can become cancerous. The hope is to prevent lifelong complications or premature death. To inspect the entire large intestine, the patient is placed under anesthesia, and a doctor inserts a tube holding a camera through the rectum. This scope can remove small polyps and tissue as well as to perform biopsies, so the procedure can be both diagnostic and therapeutic.
What could go wrong during a colonoscopy?
While generally thought to be low risk, there are complications that can arise when doing a colonoscopy. To assess whether an error is minor or critical, the patient should be aware of what is expected and what is not.
Potential complications to watch for when undergoing a colonoscopy include:
- Perforated intestine. The scope can create tiny tears as it weaves through your colon and rectum. Small tears usually require a “wait and see” approach while you may be placed on bed rest and given antibiotics as a precaution to ward off infection. These minor injuries are generally resolved without further issue; however, a large tear may require emergency surgery. Serious cases can lead to death if the perforation is not diagnosed and treated in a timely manner.
- Bleeding. Short-term bleeding for a couple of days when you use the bathroom is often expected, particularly if the doctor had to remove tissue or a polyp. However, heavy bleeding is a sign that something may be wrong, and you need to contact your doctor.
- Post-polypectomy electrocoagulation syndrome. If the bowel wall is injured to the extent that a burn was inflicted, it can result in severe abdominal pain, rapid heart rate, and fever. If this occurs, surgery may be necessary if bed rest and antibiotics don’t heal the wound.
- Infection. The infection rate after a colonoscopy was previously believed to be one in one million. According to a 2018 study conducted by Johns Hopkins University, the infection rate is actually one in 1,000. With 15 million colonoscopies performed a year, that’s a lot of infections. Why is this rate so much higher than originally believed? Scopes may not be properly cleaned in between procedures, which can lead to a host of infections, including coli and Klebsiella. Additionally, there is a risk for sepsis, a dangerous blood infection, which can quickly turn deadly if not caught and treated in time.
Some of the injuries caused during a colonoscopy may not be immediately evident and can take up to a month before you might see the effects.
The risk is higher for older adults
Colon cancer typically develops very slowly, which is one reason colonoscopies are not recommended for persons over the age of 75. Risks for older adults generally stem from preparing for the procedure and include:
- Dehydration or electrolyte imbalance
- Increased edema (fluid retention) in heart patients from polyethylene glycol (PEG)
- Kidney complications from sodium phosphate
Is there an alternative to traditional colonoscopy?
Despite the risks, colon screenings are very important, and far more people die from colon cancer than from complications of the procedure to detect it. However, there is another, less invasive option that doesn’t get a lot of press.
Virtual colonoscopy, or CT colonography, is a “grade A” screening option according to the United States Preventive Services Task Force and is typically covered by health insurance. The test received this grade because it is thought to be just as accurate as the standard colonoscopy.
The benefits of a CT colonography include:
- No difficult preparation the day before
- No need for sedation, which has risks of its own
- You can drive yourself home after the procedure
- No discomfort afterwards
- No risk of complications, such as perforating the colon
Not every medical injury or complication will qualify as a negligent action for which you can pursue a legal medical malpractice claim. The client-focused Atlanta medical malpractice attorneys at Harris Lowry Manton LLP will be able to investigate and determine from your medical records whether you have a case.
To schedule your free, confidential case evaluation today, call our Atlanta office at 404-998-8847, our Savannah office at 912-417-3774, or we invite you to reach out to us through our contact page to share your experience.
One of the nation’s top trial attorneys, Jeff Harris is an award-winning litigator who handles high-profile, complex cases across a wide variety of practice areas. He excels at securing justice for clients who have been seriously injured or killed, holding responsible parties accountable for their actions as well as their negligence.
Read more about Jeffrey R. Harris here.