Michael Jackson's Death: propofol (Diprivan) FAQ

Medical Author: Benjamin C. Wedro, MD, FACEP, FAAEM
Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

Propofol is a drug that was on trial as causing the death of the music icon. Guilt by association: not the doctor who administered the drug but for the propofol itself. Here is a perfectly fine anesthetic agent, minding its own business, being scrutinized just because it was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Actually, propofol (Diprivan) should never be carried by a doctor making a house call. It's meant for hospital use in the intensive care unit or the operating room, for patients who are intubated and on a ventilator. It's meant for the emergency room when people have to be sedated for a few seconds to undergo a painful procedure such as cardiac shock, or to fix a joint dislocation. The drug is meant to be given by physicians trained in critical care with equipment available to deal with any complication that might occur. It is not meant to be used as a sleeping pill.

Every medication has the opportunity to make a positive contribution to a patient's care, but every medication also has a risk-reward balance sheet. Drug side effects and complications have to be respected. Over-the-counter medications risk major problems if they are abused, even if no doctor's prescription is required. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, etc.) is a great pain killer, but take too much and it's a liver killer too. Aspirin may be a wonder drug used to prevent heart attacks and strokes, but take too much and there is risk of kidney failure and fluid accumulation in the lungs.

But back to propofol. Propofol has become one of the drugs of choice used to sedate patients. An initial bolus is injected intravenously, and the patient drifts off to sleep lasting 3-5 minutes before wearing off...just enough time for the critical care medical team to perform a procedure on the patient (that without the propofol would be excruciatingly painful). If longer amounts of sedation are required, then the propofol is continuously infused in the IV line. The issue with propofol is that it can make the patient's brain forget to breathe. It's not a side effect or complication; it's just what it does. That issue requires a person with the skills to breathe for the patient if necessary and to stand guard at all times. Propofol is a sedating drug, and excess sedation may occur if used in combination with drugs such as diazepam (Valium). The more sedation, the more likely the patient will stop breathing.