Michael Jackson's Death: propofol (Diprivan) FAQ

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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.

The body lives within a very narrow range of normal. Once a patient quits breathing, the body switches to anaerobic metabolism, lactic acid levels build, and organs quickly fail.

So back to the guilt by association. According to a variety of news reports at the time of Jackson's death, his prescribing physician began injecting the sedative drugs diazepam (Valium), lorazepam (Ativan), and midazolam injection (Versed) intravenously. When they failed to make him fall asleep, he added the propofol and then left the patient's side to make a few phone calls. When he returned, Jackson was dead. News reports speculated that the defense would suggest that Jackson gave himself the overdose when the doctor left the room, but the first crime was possessing propofol in the first place.

Now, as the trial of Jackson's physician has come to a close, the dangers of propofol are still the lead story. Perhaps the story should concentrate on how a drug meant for a critical care unit crammed with high tech monitoring equipment, was being injected into the arm of a patient lying in his bed at home. Special equipment is not enough since most hospitals require that only critical care physicians like those working in the ICU, OR, and ER be allowed to order propofol. There may be further credentialing restrictions should the anesthetic be used outside the operating room setting.

Realistically, propofol is a great drug, used routinely and safely in the hospital setting, but patients and family will come to recognize and perhaps fear the drug that killed Michael Jackson. And it will take a fair amount of bedside education to convince those patients that a safe drug isn't guilty as charged.

Health Solutions From Our Sponsors

ABCNews.com. Michael Jackson Had 'Lethal Levels' of Propofol Before Death.

County of LA, Department of Coronor, Case Report. Jackson, Michael Joseph.

CNN.com. Celebrity doctors, beware.