Hospitals have been urged to check their suction equipment is working properly after more than 100 serious problems were recorded over a five-year period.
Failures of the device, used to clear patients’ airways in an emergency, are thought to have contributed to the deaths of seven people in England and Wales from January 2005 to December 2009.
The National Patient Safety Agency has notified hospital trusts to warn them of the potential risks.
They said they received details of 105 serious incidents involving problems with airway suction over the five years, including there being no equipment available, or it being set up incorrectly, not clean, or its battery not being fully charged.
The agency added that: “The reports suggest that lack of training and poor checking procedures were underlying causes for these incidents.”
The advice comes as the family of a man who died after an unsuccessful resuscitation attempt said they found it “disturbing” that his was not the only case of its kind.
Cecil Barnes, 79, died in July 2008 at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth. An open verdict was recorded at an inquest into his death last November.
Devon coroner Ian Arrow wrote to the Department of Health following the inquest, who in turn referred the matter to the NPSA to see if the possible failings in equipment before his death had been repeated elsewhere.
Dr Suzette Woodward, director of patient safety at the NPSA, said: “The role of the NPSA is to allow healthcare staff, organisations and patients to submit patient safety incident reports to a national database, the National Reporting and Learning System, so that the information can be analysed to identify hazards, risks and opportunities to improve patient safety.
“Reports to the NRLS are analysed with expert clinical input to identify common hazards.
“We have recently disseminated data across the NHS relating to airway suction equipment, raising the profile of this risk.”
The NPSA has advised hospitals to consider giving staff regular training on the use of suction equipment and standardising the devices they use, saying that a hospital using a variety of devices is “an additional contributing factor”.
A Department of Health spokeswoman said: “Across the NHS there must be a culture of patient safety above all else.
“If any concerns are raised about patient safety then they must be taken seriously and investigated, as we understand has happened in this case.
“It is vital that where mistakes do happen they are learned from so they cannot happen again.
“The National Patient Safety Agency has notified the NHS of risks surrounding airway suction equipment and we would expect NHS to act on the warning if needed.”