We conducted an observational study of serious airway complications, using similar methods to the fourth UK National Audit Project (NAP4) over a period of 1 year across four hospitals in one region in the UK. We also conducted an activity survey over a week, using NAP4 methods to yield an estimate for relevant denominators to help interpret the primary data. There were 17 serious airway complications, defined as: failed airway management leading to cancellation of surgery (eight); airway management in recovery (five); unplanned intensive care admission (three); and unplanned emergency front of neck access (one). There were no reports of death or brain damage. This was an estimate of 0.028% (1 in 3600) complications using the denominator of 61,000 general anaesthetics per year in the region. Complications in patients with 'predicted easy' airways were rare (approximately 1 in 14,200), but 45 times more common in those with 'predicted difficult' airways (approximately 1 in 315). Airway management in both groups was similar (induction of anaesthesia followed by supraglottic airway or tracheal tube). Use of awake/sedation intubation, videolaryngoscopy and high-flow nasal oxygenation were uncommon even in the predicted difficult airway patients (in 2.7%, 32.4% and 9.5% of patients, respectively). We conclude that the incidence of serious airway complications is at least as high as it was during NAP4. Despite airway prediction being used, this is not informing subsequent management.
Nuffield Department of Anaesthetics, Oxford University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, Oxford, UK.