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Summary

We present the main findings of the 5th National Audit Project on accidental awareness during general anaesthesia. Incidences were estimated using reports of accidental awareness as the numerator, and a parallel national anaesthetic activity survey to provide denominator data. The incidence of certain/probable and possible accidental awareness cases was ~1:19 600 anaesthetics (95% CI 1:16 700–23 450). However, there was considerable variation across subtypes of techniques or subspecialties. The incidence with neuromuscular blockade was ~1:8200 (1:7030–9700), and without it was ~1:135 900 (1:78 600–299 000). The cases of accidental awareness during general anaesthesia reported to 5th National Audit Project were overwhelmingly cases of unintended awareness during neuromuscular blockade. The incidence of accidental awareness during caesarean section was ~1:670 (1:380–1300). Two thirds (82, 66%) of cases of accidental awareness experiences arose in the dynamic phases of anaesthesia, namely induction of and emergence from anaesthesia. During induction of anaesthesia, contributory factors included: use of thiopental; rapid sequence induction; obesity; difficult airway management; neuromuscular blockade; and interruptions of anaesthetic delivery during movement from anaesthetic room to theatre. During emergence from anaesthesia, residual paralysis was perceived by patients as accidental awareness, and commonly related to a failure to ensure full return of motor capacity. One third (43, 33%) of accidental awareness events arose during the maintenance phase of anaesthesia, most due to problems at induction or towards the end of anaesthesia. Factors increasing the risk of accidental awareness included: female sex; age (younger adults, but not children); obesity; anaesthetist seniority (junior trainees); previous awareness; out-of-hours operating; emergencies; type of surgery (obstetric, cardiac, thoracic); and use of neuromuscular blockade. The following factors were not risk factors for accidental awareness: ASA physical status; race; and use or omission of nitrous oxide. We recommend that an anaesthetic checklist, to be an integral part of the World Health Organization Safer Surgery checklist, is introduced as an aid to preventing accidental awareness. This paper is a shortened version describing the main findings from 5th National Audit Project – the full report can be found at http://www.nationalauditprojects.org.uk/NAP5_home#pt.