Study sees decline in post-surgery deaths

By Communications Staff
September 21, 2012

Share this:View PDFPrinter Friendly

Post-surgery deaths have experienced a dramatic decline, with anaesthetic deaths leading the way with a 90 per cent decline in the last half century, according to Western research led by Dr. Daniel Bainbridge.

Despite operating on more high-risk patients, or utilizing more complicated surgeries today, the likelihood of dying after a general anaesthetic has dropped by roughly 90 per cent — from an estimated 357 per million before the 1970s to 34 per million in the 1990s and 2000s. During the same period, the risk of dying from any cause within 48 hours of surgery has decreased by about 88 per cent — from an estimated 10,603 per million before the 1970s to 1,176 per million in the 1990s and 2000s.



Bainbridge, along with colleagues in Western’s Department of Anaesthesia and Perioperative Medicine, used global data from 87 studies involving more than 21.4 million anaesthetics spanning back to the 1930s.

The findings will be published in the high-profile journal, The Lancet.

“Although this declining pattern was evident in both developing and developed nations, the greatest and most progressive decline has been in developed countries. Overall rates of perioperative- and anaesthetic-related mortality have consistently been much higher in developing countries and remain two to three times higher than in developed nations,” said the Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry professor and Lawson Health Research Institute scientist.

Bainbridge credits several factors for the decline including better operating room equipment, more precise recognition and treatment of patient disease, safer surgical checklists and strong hospital infrastructure.

In the future, he would like to see further research, followed by evidence-based interventions, into reducing the disparities between high-income and low-income countries. But for now, these numbers should put patient minds a bit more at ease during an already stressful time.

“Although anaesthetic mortality remains low compared with traffic fatalities or suicide, it still remains high compared with death caused by air travel, which is a commonly used yardstick to benchmark the risk of anaesthesia,” he said. “We know people are afraid of flying because of the risk of death even though that risk is low, and has been steadily going down. 

“We also know people who come in for surgery are afraid of dying from the anaesthetic or from the surgery, and we’re able to show the same thing, that the rates have been steadily going down and the risk is extremely low.” 

Still, he said, there’s room for improvement.

“Even though we know the risk is low, we continue to improve the standards and the safety for patients so they can be more comfortable and confident when they come for surgery,” Bainbridge said.


8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
(holidays excluded)


Helen Connell

Jason Winders

Paul Mayne

Adela Talbot

Advertising Coordinator:
Denise Jones

Off-Campus Advertising Sales:
Chris Amyot, Campus Ad

National Advertising Representative:
Campus Plus



Western News
Westminster Hall
Suite 360
The University of Western Ontario
N6A 3K7

Western provides the best student experience among Canada's leading research-intensive universities.