Potential for Complications: Diagnostics, Treatments & Procedures

Instructor: Justine Fritzel

Justine has been a Registered Nurse for 10 years and has a Bachelor's of Science in Nursing degree.

Complications may occur with any medical care. In this lesson, we will review potential complications for different diagnostics, treatments, and procedures.

Risks in Healthcare

In the healthcare setting, virtually everything has some type of risk associated with it. From taking medication to hospitalization to surgery, some degree of complication could occur.

William is an elderly man that smoked cigarettes the majority of his life. He quit smoking a couple of years ago when he had increased lung infections. Over the last month, he has had increased shortness of breath and weight loss.

We will follow William through his doctor visits to look at different interventions and associated risks.

Diagnostics and Risks

William went to see his family doctor. His doctor ordered an X-ray of his chest. An X-ray uses electromagnetic radiation to obtain an image. Radiation is harmful to the body by damaging cells which can lead to cancer. Fortunately, the radiation exposure from a chest X-ray is very low. X-ray technicians will often use magnetic drapes to cover nearby areas of the body to prevent exposure.


A few days later, the doctor calls and tells William that they found a tumor in his lung. They schedule him for a biopsy the next week.

A biopsy is a test done when cancer is suspected. It collects cells that the pathologist examines under a microscope to determine if the cells are cancerous or not. Since the tumor is in William's lung, the biopsy is obtained with a needle. There are many risks associated with this diagnostic test including infection, bleeding at the site of the biopsy, coughing up blood, or a collapsed lung. The doctor will use a CT scan to visualize the biopsy procedure to decrease chances of these complications occurring.

A CT scan is a series of images taken from different angles. The computer processes these images to provide different ways to view the images. The radiation exposure of a CT scan is greater than standard X-rays, but overall the risk of cancer from this is very small.

Risks with procedures

The biopsy confirms William's fear. The tumor is cancerous. The doctor discusses with him the need for radiation therapy to try to shrink the tumor.

Radiation therapy is the use of high-energy radiation to kill cancer cells and decrease the size of tumors. It's a beneficial intervention for radiation therapy to kill cancer cells, but it can also kill nearby healthy cells at the same time. Destroying healthy cells can cause side effects of radiation therapy. General side effects include skin issues such as dryness, blisters, itching or peeling. A person may feel exhausted all the time, and there is a possibility of developing cancer from radiation exposure, but that is a very small chance.

Depending on the location of radiation therapy also indicates what side effects could occur. Since William is receiving radiation therapy to his chest, he may develop shortness of breath, cough, difficulty swallowing, or scar tissue in the lungs. The doctors try to limit the side effects of radiation therapy by trying to avoid exposure to surrounding, healthy tissue and monitoring the amount of radiation therapy.

Treatments and Possible Problems

William receives his radiation treatments and his doctor talks to him about starting chemotherapy as well. Chemotherapy is the use of drugs to treat cancer. These drugs have to be strong enough to kill the rapid division of cancer cells and unfortunately affects healthy cells at the same time. There are many complications and side effects of chemotherapy.

William's doctor discusses the risks associated with chemotherapy. His doctor tells him that it will make his hair fall out, cause fatigue, and will decrease his immune system, making him very susceptible to infections. It affects blood cell production and may cause anemia or may make him bleed or bruise easily. Chemotherapy often causes nausea and vomiting, sores in the mouth, numbness and tingling, and mood changes.

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