WebM&M Cases & Commentaries
WebM&M (Morbidity & Mortality Rounds on the Web) features expert analysis of medical errors reported anonymously by our readers. Spotlight Cases include interactive learning modules available for CME. Commentaries are written by patient safety experts and published monthly. Contribute by Submitting a Case anonymously.
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- Diagnostic Errors
- Discontinuities, Gaps, and Hand-Off Problems 10
- Inpatient suicide 1
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Health Care Providers
- Nurses 5
- Physicians 17
- Non-Health Care Professionals 8
Robert Chang, MD, and Scott Flanders, MD; February 2019
A woman was admitted to a hospital's telemetry floor for management of uncontrolled hypertension and palpitations. On the first hospital day, she complained of right arm numbness and weakness and had new difficulty answering questions. The nurse called the hospitalist and relayed the arm symptoms, but not the word-finding difficulty. The hospitalist asked the nurse to call for a neurology consultation. Four hours later, the patient's weakness had progressed; she was now completely unable to move her right arm. At that point, neither the hospitalist nor the neurology consultant had evaluated the patient in person. A stat head CT revealed a large ischemic stroke.
- Spotlight Case
Timothy R. Kreider, MD, PhD, and John Q. Young, MD, MPP, PhD; January 2019
A woman with a history of psychiatric illness presented to the emergency department with agitation, hallucinations, tachycardia, and transient hypoxia. The consulting psychiatric resident attributed the tachycardia and hypoxia to her underlying agitation and admitted her to an inpatient psychiatric facility. Over the next few days, her tachycardia persisted and continued to be attributed to her psychiatric disease. On hospital day 5, the patient was found unresponsive and febrile, with worsening tachycardia, tachypnea, and hypoxia; she had diffuse myoclonus and increased muscle tone. She was transferred to the ICU of the hospital, where a chest CT scan revealed bilateral pulmonary emboli (explaining the tachycardia and hypoxia), and clinicians also diagnosed neuroleptic malignant syndrome (a rare and life-threatening reaction to some psychiatric medications).
- Spotlight Case
Ifedayo Kuye, MD, MBA, and Chanu Rhee, MD, MPH; October 2018
Admitted with generalized weakness, nausea, and low blood pressure, an elderly man was given IV fluids and broad spectrum antibiotics. Laboratory test results revealed a mildly elevated white count, acute kidney injury, and elevated liver function tests. The patient was admitted to the medical ICU with a presumed diagnosis of septic shock. His blood pressure continued to trend downward. While reviewing the emergency department test results, the ICU resident noticed the patient's troponin level was markedly elevated and his initial ECG revealed T-wave inversions. A repeat ECG in the ICU showed obvious ST segment elevations, diagnostic of an acute myocardial infarction. The resident realized that the patient's low blood pressure was likely due to the myocardial infarction, not septic shock. He underwent urgent cardiac catheterization and was found to have complete occlusion of the right coronary artery, for which a stent was placed.
- Spotlight Case
Jeffrey Jim, MD, MPHS; August 2018
An older man with multiple medical conditions and an extensive smoking history was admitted to the hospital with worsening shortness of breath. He underwent transthoracic echocardiogram, which demonstrated severe aortic stenosis. The cardiology team recommended cardiac catheterization, but the interventional cardiologist could not advance the catheter and an aortogram revealed an abdominal aortic aneurysm (AAA) measuring 9 cm in diameter. Despite annual visits to his primary care physician, he had never undergone screening ultrasound to assess for presence of an AAA. The patient was sent emergently for surgical repair but had a complicated surgical course.
Joseph L. Schindler, MD; June 2018
Brought to the emergency department after being found unresponsive, an older man was given systemic thrombolytics to treat a suspected stroke. After administering the medication, the nurse noticed patches on the patient's back. The patient's wife explained that the patches, which contained fentanyl and whose doses had recently been increased, were for chronic back pain. In fact, the wife had placed two patches that morning. Medication reconciliation revealed that the patient had inadvertently received 3 times his previous dose. He was administered naloxone to treat the opioid overdose. Although he became more responsive, he had a generalized seizure and a CT showed intracranial hemorrhage—an adverse consequence of the thrombolytics.
Stephen Bacak, DO, MPH, and Loralei Thornburg, MD; March 2018
A pregnant woman presented to the emergency department 3 times in 4 days, first with symptoms of upper respiratory infection, nausea, and fever; then abdominal cramps; then shortness of breath and abdominal pain. On the third visit, she was diagnosed with influenza and possible sepsis. In between visits, the patient had been taking acetaminophen (1g every 4 hours) to control her fever. Although she had signs of acute fulminant hepatitis due to acetaminophen overdose, administration of the antidote, N-acetylcysteine, was delayed for 10 hours.
Robert E. O'Connor, MD, MPH; March 2018
Emergency medical service (EMS) providers obtained an electrocardiogram (ECG) in a woman who had developed severe chest pressure at home. The ECG revealed an ST-elevation myocardial infarction (STEMI). Unfortunately, the ECG failed to transmit to the emergency department (ED) while EMS was en route, so a "Code STEMI" was not activated. Unaware of the original ECG results, ED clinicians obtained a repeat ECG that did not demonstrate the earlier ST segment elevations, and the patient was admitted to the telemetry unit for monitoring overnight. The next morning, lab results revealed an elevated troponin level and another ECG demonstrated she had a large heart attack the previous day. Although the patient was rushed to the cardiac catheterization laboratory, the delay in treatment led to significant loss of cardiac function.
James B. Reilly, MD, MS, and Christopher Webster, DO; March 2017
A woman taking modified-release lithium for bipolar disorder was admitted with cough, slurred speech, confusion, and disorientation. Diagnosed with delirium attributed to hypercalcemia, she was treated with aggressive hydration. She remained disoriented and eventually became comatose. After transfer to the ICU, she was diagnosed with nephrogenic diabetes insipidus due to lithium toxicity.
Steven L. Cohn, MD; June 2016
When a pregnant woman with fever, nausea, and headaches presented to the emergency department (ED), laboratory tests showed an incredibly high white blood cell count. Although the ED contacted the hematology service for a consultation, the urgency of the patient's clinical status was not conveyed, leading to a fatal delay in diagnosing and treating her acute myeloid leukemia.
- Spotlight Case
Charlie C. Kilpatrick, MD; September 2015
After several days of abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, a pregnant woman visited the emergency department and was swiftly discharged with antibiotics for a UTI. However, she returned the next day with unchanged abdominal pain and more nausea and vomiting. Apart from a focused ultrasound to document her pregnancy, no further testing was done. The patient again returned the following day with increased pain and now appeared more ill. An MRI revealed a ruptured appendix.
- Spotlight Case
Shirley Beng Suat Ooi, MBBS (S'pore); April 2015
A woman admitted to the hospital with a presumed transient ischemic attack and possible gastrointestinal bleeding was found unconscious and in cardiac arrest on hospital day 2. Despite maximal resuscitation efforts, the patient died. Autopsy revealed that the cause of death was an acute aortic dissection.
- Spotlight Case
Terence Goh, MBBS, and Lee Gan Goh, MBBS; July-August 2014
Admitted with bruising from a fall and persistent pain on his left side, a patient was kept in the emergency department overnight due to crowding. After being reevaluated by the surgical service the next day, the patient was urgently taken to the operating room for probable necrotizing fasciitis and pyomysitis.
Jonathan P. Piccini, MD, MHS; L. Kristin Newby, MD, MHS; and Robert M. Califf, MD; February 2014
A woman with coronary artery disease, diabetes, and hypertension was admitted for a myocardial infarction. Following percutaneous coronary intervention, the patient had several runs of non-sustained ventricular tachycardia (NSVT) and later experienced a cardiac arrest secondary to sustained VT.
- Spotlight Case
Urmimala Sarkar, MD, MPH; October 2013
Although the mother of a child, born male who identified as and expressed externally as a girl, had alerted the clinic of the child's preferred name when making the appointment, the medical staff called for the patient in the waiting room using her legal (masculine) name.
- Spotlight Case
Nicholas Symons, MBChB, MSc; July-August 2013
An elderly woman with severe abdominal pain was admitted for an emergency laparotomy for presumed small bowel obstruction. Shortly after induction of anesthesia, her heart stopped. She was resuscitated and transferred to the intensive care unit, where she died the next morning. The review committee felt this case represented a diagnostic error, which led to unnecessary surgery and a preventable death.
David E. Newman-Toker, MD, PhD; April 2013
Admitted to the hospital with headache and word-finding difficulties, a man was given a preliminary diagnosis of vasculitis. Although serial imaging studies seemed to indicate progression of his brain lesions, these were not biopsied and discovered to be glioblastoma multiforme until 4 months later. The delay in diagnosis contributed to his rapid clinical decline.
Steven K. Polevoi, MD; December 2012
Following an emergency department (ED) evaluation for chest pain, a patient was discharged with a presumptive diagnosis of gastroesophageal reflux disease. Two days later, he returned to the ED in severe distress, now with an acute myocardial infarction and a large pericardial effusion.
Jeffrey M. Rohde, MD, and Scott A. Flanders, MD; November 2012
A 32-year-old man went to the emergency department with fever and pleuritic chest pain. Following an extensive work-up, he was discharged with "fever, pleural effusion, and chest wall pain", but no clear diagnosis. He returned to the ED 3 days later with worsening pain, continued fever, a new cough, and dyspnea. The patient was started on antibiotics and admitted for pneumonia with effusion.
Krishan Soni, MD, MBA, and Gurpreet Dhaliwal, MD; July 2012
A man presented to the emergency department (ED) complaining of knee problems, and the triage nurse wrote down the chief complaint as "bilateral knee pain." The ED physician diagnosed a musculoskeletal injury and prepared to discharge him, but the patient was noticeably unsteady. Further examination and imaging revealed a subdural hematoma requiring urgent neurosurgical intervention.
J. David Kinzie, MD; March 2012
Admitted to the hospital complaining of difficulty breathing and swallowing, a Vietnamese man was diagnosed with reflux disease and an outpouching of the esophagus. The patient was anxious and repeatedly stated that he was "dying" from his physical ailments. During a gastroenterology consultation, the patient ran to the restroom and jumped out the window, killing himself.