Endoscopy Practice and Safety
Editor: Peter B. Cotton ed.
8. Risks, prevention, and management
Peter B. Cotton
This review emphasizes key issues for reducing the burden of risk inherently involved in all interventional procedures, and
the need to ensure that patients are informed sufficiently to be able to participate in decisions about their care. Whilst
each patient and each procedure may be unique, the principles of risk minimization and management are universal. Procedures
must be done for appropriate indications, by well-trained endoscopists, assisted by expert staff, using the correct equipment.
Known risk factors should be reviewed beforehand, and steps taken to accommodate them whenever necessary and possible. Patient
consent exists only when there has been a meaningful educational process, adjusted appropriately to the individual patient
and clinical situation. Unplanned events should be defined carefully and their occurrence monitored, so that standard methods
for continuous quality improvement can be applied.
Endoscopy ('looking inside') is invasive by definition, and therefore potentially hazardous. Therapeutic interventions add to the risk. The goal of everybody
involved in an endoscopy procedure, not least the patient, is to maximize the benefits and to minimize the risks.
This contribution focuses on the potential risks of endoscopy in general. Specific risks of individual procedures (such as
ERCP, and various therapeutic maneuvers) are covered in the relevant sections. However, the principles are the same. Endoscopists
must understand the risks, the factors which affect them, the ways to reduce them, and how best to educate our patients about
them. There have been many reviews of this topic .
The contract with the patient; informed consent
Endoscopy is normally conducted as part of a comprehensive evaluation by a gastroenterologist or by another digestive specialist.
It is used mostly electively in the practice environment, or hospital outpatient clinic, but may sometimes be needed elsewhere
(e.g. emergency room, intensive care unit). Sometimes, endoscopists offer an 'open access service' where the initial clinical assessment and continuing care is performed by another physician.
In all of these situations it is the responsibility of endoscopists to assure themselves that the potential benefits of the
proposed procedure exceed the potential risks, and to convey that information clearly to their patients. Truly informed consent
means that the patient really does understand the potential risks and benefits, as well as the possible limitations and any
available alternative approaches . That is our contract with the patient. Signing an 'informed consent form' is a medico-legal requirement in many institutions, but this is nothing more than confirmation of the education process.
Nothing can replace a detailed discussion between the endoscopist and the patient (and any accompanying persons), but this
process can be enhanced with written, video-, or web-based educational materials. Suitable brochures are available from national
organizations, and on many websites (e.g. http://www.ddc.musc.edu). They can be adapted for local conditions. Whatever the details of the education process, patients must be given the opportunity
to ask questions of their endoscopist (and support staff) immediately before the procedure. The process of informed consent
must be clearly documented, and preferably witnessed.
It is appropriate here to emphasize also the importance of simple courtesies and common humanity in dealing with our customers.
What is familiar and routine to the endoscopist and staff may be viewed by patients as a major ordealespecially by those unfortunate enough to experience a significant adverse event.
What are 'risks' and 'complications'?
Risks cannot be described, discussed, or monitored unless there is agreement about their definition. This has proved to be
a challenge [25,26]. The word 'complication' has unfortunate medico-legal connotations. It suggests that something has 'gone wrong'. It seems preferable to use a more neutral term, like 'unplanned event', which simply indicates that the procedure has not gone completely 'according to plan', a subtle but important difference in emphasis. Some use the term 'adverse events' instead of complications. However, not all unplanned events are actually adverse; occasionally, things may go better than
expected. The logic of using 'unplanned event' is that it ties directly in with the informed consent process. The truly informed patient knows what the plan is, and has
specific expectations about what will happen before, during, and after the procedure, as well as the likely outcomes, both
positive and negative.
Threshold for 'a complication'
Some unplanned events are relatively trivial, e.g. the need for sedation reversal during or after a procedure, or self-limited
bleeding at the site of an endoscopic incision. These events should be adequately documented, so that quality improvement
processes can be applied, but they are not significant enough clinically to be called complications. Mostly, patients are
unaware of such events. However, there is a level of severity at which an 'unplanned event' does become clinically important, and where 'complication' is a legitimate descriptor. The question is where to place the threshold, i.e at what level of severity does an unplanned
event become a complication? We attempted to define that threshold in 1991 at a consensus conference discussing outcomes of
ERCP . We stated that 'a complication is an unplanned event, related to the procedure, that requires the patient to be admitted to hospital, or to
stay in hospital longer than expected, or to undergo other unplanned interventions'. By this definition, we do not count in our statistics of 'complications' any deviation that occurs during a procedure but which is not obvious to the patient afterwards (e.g. transient bleeding),
or one which can be treated on an outpatient basis (e.g. localized thrombophlebitis at an infusion site). This definition
is not an attempt to hide such events, merely an effort to provide a common language. This is essential if we are to collect
data, for, without data, we cannot study our outcomes or improve them.
A complication is an unplanned event that reaches a certain level of severity. But not all complications are of equal importance.
They vary from relatively minor episodes (e.g. one day of pancreatitis after ERCP) to those which are life threatening (e.g.
perforation). It seems reasonable to stratify the severity of complications by the extent of the disturbance which they cause
to the patient. The consensus conference settled on the following stratification of severity:
- Mild; unplanned events requiring hospitalization of 13 days.
- Moderate; needing 49 days in hospital.
- Severe; more than 10 days in hospital, or needing surgery, or intensive care.
- Fatal; death attributable to the procedure.
Use of the terms 'attributable' and 'related to the procedure' (in the earlier general definition) introduces a regrettable element of subjectivity, with the potential for reporting bias.
That could be avoided by counting everything adverse that occurs within a certain period (say 30 days, as used to be the case
after surgery). However, this would not be appropriate. No one would causally connect a simple diagnostic endoscopy with a
myocardial infarction which occurred 29 days afterwards, in an elderly patient with known heart disease, especially if they
had undergone multiple other medical interventions in the meantime. However, attribution would seem reasonable if the same
event had occurred only two days after the endoscopy, especially if aspirin had been discontinued, or if the patient had experienced
transient hypotension or hypoxia. Other issues with unplanned events and complications are whether they cause the procedure
to be interrupted or aborted, and whether they leave any permanent sequelae.
Timing of unplanned events
Most unplanned events occur during or immediately after the procedures. However, they can happen even before the endoscope
is introduced (e.g. a reaction to prophylactic antibiotics or other preparation), during the procedure (e.g. transient bradycardia
or hypoxia), immediately afterwards (e.g. pain due to perforation), a few hours later (e.g. pancreatitis after ERCP), or can
be delayed for several days or weeks (e.g. aspiration pneumonia or delayed bleeding). Some events (e.g. viral transmission)
may be so far delayed that the connection is difficult to make, or is missed completely. Keeping track of unplanned events
which occur after patients leave the procedure unit is a challenge. Making routine follow-up phone calls is time-consuming,
and not completely reliable. Perhaps automatic, computer-generated phone calls or e-mail will be useful in the future.
Direct and indirect events
When considering complications, most endoscopists think first about the obviously related direct events (such as bleeding and perforation) that occur in organs which are being traversed or treated. However, there are also
many indirect events, which occur outside the digestive tract. Cardiopulmonary complications (often related to sedation) are probably the
commonest of the unplanned events. Renal, neurological, and musculo-skeletal complications have all occurred. Indirect events
are more likely to occur after the patient leaves the procedure unit, and are thus more often overlooked and under-reported.
Data set for unplanned events
A proposed data set for documentation of unplanned events, their consequences, and their severity is shown in Fig. 1.
General issues of causation and management
The issues impacting each specific type of event are discussed in detail below. However, there are some general risk factors,
and important points to be made about the recognition and management of unplanned events.
Unplanned events may occur because of:
- Poor technical or cognitive performance by the endoscopist or staff.
- Patients' 'fitness' or, really, 'unfitness'. This is a combination of, and interaction between the complexity/severity of the presenting complaint and the patients' comorbidities (including allergies).
- Non-compliance by patients and their helpers.
Technical and cognitive performance
The skill of the endoscopist (both clinical and technical) is probably the most important single factor determining the likelihood
of unplanned events. As for certain surgeries, there is now good evidence that better-trained and more experienced endoscopists
have higher success rates and fewer complications . This raises the important and controversial issues of training, assessment of competence, report cards, recredentialling,
and regionalization of specialist services . However, endoscopists do not work on their own. Their specialist nursing and technical associates have much responsibility
for many aspects of patient safety. The most important areas for them are the preparation of the patient, and the equipment,
sedation, and monitoring of patients during and after the procedures.
Fitness for procedures
Defining a patient's 'fitness' for a procedure is a complex issue. Their 'unfitness', or degree of 'illness' is a combination of the presenting disease and any existing comorbidities (and their possible interactions, which are sometimes
complex). As yet, there is no agreed and relatively simple score that can be used to compare the acuity of different patients
and populations of patients undergoing endoscopic and related procedures.
The American Society of Anaesthesiology grading system is well validated for operative procedures requiring anaesthesia . It has some correlation with the cardiopulmonary responses to sedation during endoscopy, but other specific issues are more
Other risk indices
Many other risk indices are in use in other areas, e.g. APACHE, POSSUM, Charlson, but none measure the likely risk of endoscopic
procedures . Developing an overall (and procedure specific) risk score can be done only by collecting the data on large numbers of patients
and procedures, and analysing the outcomes. This has been done in certain contexts, e.g. ERCP and sphincterotomy [28,35].
Prompt recognition and management
The keys to effective management of complications are early recognition and prompt focused action. Delay is dangerous both
medically and legally . Patients in pain and distress after procedures should always be examined carefully, and never simply 'reassured' without careful evaluation.
Poor communication is the basis for much unhappiness, and many lawsuits. Remember that the truly informed patient (and relatives)
have been told already that complications can happen. This is an integral, important part of the consent process. So it is
appropriate and correct to address suspected complications in that spirit. 'It looks as if we have a perforation here. We discussed that as a remote possibility beforehand, and I am sorry that it has
occurred. Here is what I think we should do.'
Your distress is understandable and worthy, and it is important to be sympathetic, but equally important to be professional
and matter of fact. Excessive apologies may give the impression that some avoidable mishap has occurred. Never, never, attempt
to cover up the facts.
Document what has happened and communicate widely, with the patient, interested relatives, referring physicians, supervisors,
and your Risk Management advisors.
Get appropriate laboratory studies and radiographs, and consult other experts in the relevant fields, including a surgeon
for anything that might remotely require surgical intervention. Sometimes it may be wise to offer to transfer the patient's
care to a specialty colleague, or to a larger medical centre, but if this happens, try to keep in touch, and to show continuing
interest and concern. Apparent abandonment alienates patients and their relatives, and may lead to initiation of legal action.
Specific unplanned events
Whilst cardiopulmonary events related to sedation are probably the commonest unplanned events, medico-legal claims arise more
often from perforation and from failure to diagnose . It is therefore smart to emphasize both of these risks in the informed consent process.
Failure to diagnose
Missing, or apparently missing, cancer and precursors is a particular risk in colonoscopy, but can occur in other organs . Endoscopists have been faulted for failing to follow suspicious lesions (e.g. gastric ulcers), even when poor compliance
of the patient has been the main issue.
Perforation is the most feared complication of endoscopic procedures, because the consequences may be severe, and because
its occurrence suggests (but does not prove) imperfect practice . It can occur anywhere that endoscopes travel. It may be caused by the endoscope tip, or by pressure from the shaft in a
tight loop, or by therapeutic dilatation or incision.
The risk of esophageal perforation is greater in the elderly, particularly in the presence of a Zenker's diverticulum. It
is also markedly increased during esophageal dilatation, especially in patients with malignancy or achalasia . Perforation of the stomach or duodenum is very unusual in patients without major focal pathology. Retroperitoneal perforation
occurs after endoscopic sphincterotomy, particularly when the needle-knife or precut technique is used by inexperienced operators.
Perforation of the afferent loop is a possibility during manipulations after Billroth II gastrectomy. Colonic perforation
is the most severe complication of colonoscopy. The risk may be increased by focal disease, such as diverticula or tumours.
Early recognition of perforation is essential. The endoscopic view may leave no room for doubt. Pain and distress are the
hallmark symptoms. Patients with esophageal perforation may develop subcutaneous emphysema. Perforation at colonoscopy is
often associated with dramatic abdominal distension. Tachycardia is common. Steps should be taken immediately to clarify the
situation. Plain radiographs usually are diagnostic, but CT scanning is more sensitive and should be carried out quickly if
perforation is suspected and standard radiographs are negative or equivocal. The retroperitoneal nature of perforation after
endoscopic sphincterotomy may delay recognition and has few specific signs. The patient may appear to have pancreatitis. Severe
pain without impressive elevation of serum amylase or lipase is suggestive of perforation, and early CT scan is advised.
Treatment of perforation is sometimes controversial. Careful assessment, review of the available literature, and surgical
advice are essential. Whilst prompt surgical intervention might seem to be the obvious solution (especially to surgeons),
it is not always necessary. Intra-abdominal perforations are almost always treated surgically, although a few selected cases
have been managed conservatively, and by endoscopic clipping or sewing. Many esophageal and most sphincterotomy perforations
have been treated conservatively (nil by mouth, intravenous fluids, antibiotics, and sometimes with targeted drainage tubes).
Collaborative management with specialist (surgical) colleagues is strongly recommended whatever strategy is proposed, with
frequent reviewand much communication with the patient and anxious relatives.
Bleeding may occur due to endoscopic manipulations (e.g. biopsy, polypectomy, or sphincterotomy), or can arise during procedures
from existing lesions (e.g. an ulcer with a visible vessel), or occasionally due to retching (Mallory Weiss tear). The risk
of bleeding is a balance between the technique of the endoscopist, the specific clinical lesion carried by the patient, and
by the coagulation status.
Patients with poor coagulation and/or portal hypertension are clearly at increased risk. Coagulopathy should be normalized or improved wherever possible, preferably
to achieve coagulation parameters like those usually accepted for percutaneous liver biopsy. Anticoagulation should be stopped
ahead of time, and (if clinically necessary) replaced temporarily by intravenous heparin for the procedure, and during the
phase of early recovery. The use of antiplatelet drugs also increases the risk of bleeding, although the extent is difficult
to determine . There is little evidence to support the widely held belief that aspirin and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS)
increase the risk, but many endoscopy units recommend that these agents be discontinued for five days or more before endoscopy
(and for a week or so afterwards). It used to be common practice to measure coagulation parameters in all patients scheduled
for therapeutic endoscopy. However, this practice is not supported by data, nor by the recent guidelines from the ASGE. A
careful personal and family history of bleeding problems is more discriminating .
Endoscopic incisions (e.g. for polypectomy or sphincterotomy) should be performed in a controlled manner, to provide sufficient
coagulation of local vessels. The addition of epinephrine to a 'saline cushion' may be helpful when resecting sessile polyps. Polyps with large stalks often have large vessels. The risk of bleeding may
be reduced by injecting epinephrine or sclerosant into the stalk, or by deploying a detachable loop. The risk of inducing
immediate or delayed bleeding from lesions which have themselves recently bled (e.g. ulcers or varices) depends on the size
of the vessel and the pressure within it, and on the precise endoscopic technique. Endoscopic ultrasound and Doppler techniques
have been used to detect significant submucosal vessels.
Recognition of bleeding is usually obvious, during or after endoscopy. Occasional patients may present later only with anaemia.
Delayed bleeding should not be attributed to the treated area without endoscopic confirmation.
Most endoscopically induced bleeding can be treated by standard medical means, with repeat endoscopic assessment and treatment
when bleeding is persistent or severe. Expert angiographic investigation and treatment has been used successfully. Surgery
is needed very rarely.
Cardiopulmonary and sedation complications
Cardiopulmonary problems and adverse reactions to sedation are the commonest cause of significant unplanned events attributable
to endoscopy . The stress of the procedures (and the presence of the tube itself) may provoke dysrhythmias or induce hypotension or hypoxia,
especially in patients with established cardiac or pulmonary disease, and in the morbidly obese. Aggressive sedation (with
inadequate monitoring) can be disastrous. The cardiopulmonary status of potential patients should be assessed carefully (and
improved if possible), and the approach to sedation/anaesthesia should be cautious and intelligent. A history of toleration of past procedures may be helpful. Some patients can
accept simple endoscopy procedures without any sedation or analgesia. Others with significant comorbidities, and predictable
airway difficulties, are best managed by anaesthesiologists. Endoscopists and staff should be fully trained in sedation, monitoring,
and resuscitation, with ready access to all necessary equipment. Cardiological consultation may be appropriate in patients
with unusual rhythms (or medications), pacemakers and implantable defibrillators.
Endoscopy can provoke bacteremia, especially during therapeutic procedures such as dilatation. This may be dangerous in a
very small number of patients who are immunocompromised, or who have important cardiovascular lesions. Endoscopy-induced endocarditis
is extremely rare (and therefore difficult to study). Hard facts are scarce, and there is certainly room for disagreements
in practice . Guidelines concerning the use of antibiotic prophylaxis have been developed by many cardiological and endoscopic authorities
. Most recommend giving antibiotics to certain 'high risk' patients undergoing the higher risk procedures, but leave much leeway for individual judgement.
Infections can be transmitted in the endoscopy unit . Outbreaks of salmonella, shigella, pseudomonas, hepatitis and other infections have been reported . Such patient-to-patient transmission should be prevented by assiduous attention to cleaning and disinfection regimes, and
appropriate management of accessories, tissues, and fluids. Patient-to-staff transmission (e.g. of H. pylori) has probably occurred, when staff protection precautions are inadequate. Transmission of tuberculosis, and of prion diseases,
is a cause for concern [73,75]. Staff-to-patient transmission is theoretically possible. Prevention of infection in the endoscopy unit clearly requires
a comprehensive approach, involving appropriate 'universal precautions', assiduous cleaning and disinfection practice, and continuous monitoring. Selective immunization of staff is relevant.
Instrumentation can stir up dormant colonization, e.g. when contrast is injected under pressure into a contaminated biliary
tree. The same is theoretically true when endoscopy manipulates other infected areas, such as a small peridiverticular abscess.
Certain patients may react adversely to medications used during endoscopy procedures. Local anaesthetic agents, antibiotics,
and iodine-containing contrast materials are most commonly cited. What to do about suspected iodine allergy before ERCP is
controversial . Some patients are allergic to latex rubber. Staff can become sensitized to gluteraldehyde. Obviously, a careful history
of drug use and allergies is mandatory.
IV site issues
Blemishes and local phlebitis are common. Spreading infection is very rare.
Miscellaneous and rare events
There are many other theoretical and rare unplanned events. Patients may sustain injuries during sedation, by falling, or
by pressure on nerves. Teeth have been damaged or lost, and more than one shoulder has been dislocated. Electrical injury
can occur during diathermy, and there have been colonic explosions. Very rarely, endoscopes have become impacted, e.g. by
retroversion up the esophagus, or have caused serious damage to adjacent structures, e.g. avulsion of the spleen.
Preventing unplanned events
The responsibility for safety (and any unplanned events) falls ultimately on the endoscopist, and there are very important
issues of training, competence, and credentialling . However, it is equally clear that the professionalism of nurses and other staff is crucial. Electronic monitoring of some
aspects is helpful, but the personal involvement of educated staff is even more so. Emergency equipment must be readily available.
Endoscopists should be trained in advanced cardiac life support techniques.
Endoscopy can never be completely safe. Keeping unplanned events to a minimum should be of the highest priority for the endoscopy
team, and for the patient. Understanding the risks and risk factors is fundamental. Careful prospective monitoring of defined
events allows continuous quality improvement.
Outstanding issues and future trends
Reducing the burden of unplanned events in the future will involve progress in many different areas, including:
- Reducing the use of endoscopy for purely diagnostic purposes, using better patient selection (e.g. by fecal DNA testing),
and alternative non-invasive methods (e.g. virtual colonoscopy).
- Refining methods for therapeutic endoscopy.
- Improving the training of endoscopists and support staff, with objective testing of competence for credentialling, and recredentialling.
- Continuous quality improvement, through structured documentation of outcomes, and appropriate feedback.
- Making endoscopes easier to clean and disinfect, even sterilize.
- Fostering patient empowerment, through meaningful education and the widespread use of report cards.
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