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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Communication between Providers
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- Communication between Providers 98
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Human Factors Engineering
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- Discontinuities, Gaps, and Hand-Off Problems
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Health Care Providers
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- Patients 2
Kheyandra Lewis, MD, and Glenn Rosenbluth, MD; November 2018
Early in the academic year, interns were on their first day of a rotation caring for an elderly man hospitalized for a stroke, who had developed aspiration pneumonia and hypernatremia. When the primary intern signed out to the cross-cover intern, he asked her to check the patient's sodium level and replete the patient with IV fluids if needed. Although the cross-covering intern asked for more clarification, the intern signing out assured her the printed, written signout had all the information needed. Later that evening, the patient's sodium returned at a level above which the written signout stated to administer IV fluids, and after reviewing the plan with the supervising resident, the intern ordered them. The next morning the primary team was surprised, stating that the plan had been to give fluids only if the patient was definitely hypernatremic. Confused, the cross-cover intern pointed out the written signout instructions. On further review, the primary intern realized he had printed out the previous day's signout, which had not been updated with the new plan.
Jeanna Blitz, MD; November 2018
When patients in two cases did not receive complete preanesthetic evaluation, problems with intubation ensued. In the first case, an anesthesiologist went to evaluate a morbidly obese patient scheduled for hysteroscopy. As the patient was donning her hospital gown behind a closed curtain, he waited but left without performing the preoperative assessment because the morning surgery list was overbooked and he had many other patients to see. Once in the operating room, he discovered on chart review that the woman had a history of gastroesophageal reflux. She could not be intubated, and a supraglottic airway was placed. In the second case, an elderly man with a tumor mass at the base of his tongue was scheduled for a biopsy. On examination, the anesthesiologist could not see much of the mass with the patient's mouth maximally open and tongue sticking out, and he couldn't locate the patient's head and neck CT to further evaluate the mass. The surgeon arrived late and did not communicate with the anesthesiologist about the patient. After inducing general anesthesia, laryngoscopy and intubation proved extremely difficult as the mass obscured the view of the larynx. A second anesthesiologist was called, and together they were able to intubate the patient with a fiberoptic bronchoscope.
Thomas J. Balcezak, MD, MPH, and Ohm Deshpande, MD; October 2018
An elderly man presented to the emergency department (ED) with decreased oral intake, fevers, confusion, and falling urine output. Laboratory test results revealed acute-on-chronic renal failure, and an ECG showed tall T waves, potentially a sign of severe hyperkalemia and a precursor of a dangerous arrhythmia. The ED physician initiated treatment for hyperkalemia, and the on-call intensivist and nephrologist agreed the patient needed urgent hemodialysis. Although they planned to place a hemodialysis catheter and start dialysis as soon as possible, the ICU was full and the patient was forced to "board" in the ED. On arrival to the ICU, 5 hours after the initial labs, the patient was hypotensive and unarousable. The patient went into cardiac arrest, was intubated, and received urgent treatment for hyperkalemia. The nephrologist arrived and was surprised the hemodialysis had not been started. The dialysis nurse had been told to start the dialysis after the patient arrived in the ICU but was unaware of the urgency of the situation.
- Spotlight Case
David J. Lucier, MD, MBA, MPH, and Jeffrey L. Greenwald, MD; September 2018
An older woman with lung cancer that had metastasized to the brain was admitted to the hospital and found to have Pneumocystis jiroveci pneumonia (PJP pneumonia), invasive pulmonary aspergillus, diffuse myopathy, and gastrointestinal bleeding. Medication reconciliation revealed that she had been prescribed a high dose of dexamethasone to reduce the brain swelling associated with the cancer. Although the intention had been to taper the steroids after she received radiotherapy for her brain metastases, the corticosteroids were never tapered, and she continued to take high-dose steroids for more than 2 months. Physicians believed that all of her acute issues were a result of the mistakenly high dose of the steroids.
Giovanni Elia, MD; Susan Barbour, RN, MS; and Wendy G. Anderson, MD, MS; August 2018
Hospitalized in the ICU after cardiac arrest and loss of cardiac function for 15 minutes, an older man experienced worsening neurological status. After extensive discussions about goals of care, the family agreed to a DNR order. Over the next week, his condition declined, and the family decided to transition to comfort measures. Orders were written but shortly thereafter, the family spoke with the ICU resident and reversed their decision. The resident canceled the terminal extubation orders without communicating the order change to other team members. Another nurse found the canceled orders, thought it was an error, and asked another physician (who was also unaware of the change in plans) to reinstate the orders. The patient was extubated and died a few hours later.
- Spotlight Case
A. Clinton MacKinney, MD, MS, and Nicholas M. Mohr, MD, MS; June 2018
After presenting to a rural emergency department with chest pain, a man with a history of diabetes awaited admission to the hospital. The off-site admitting internist ordered aspirin and a heparin drip, but neither medication was administered. On transfer to the acute care unit 2 hours later, the patient was diaphoretic, somnolent, tachycardic, and borderline hypotensive. The nurse called the internist and realized the heparin drip had never been started. When she went to administer it, the patient was unresponsive, hypotensive, and bradycardic. She called a code blue.
Jennifer Faig, MD, and Jessica A. Zerillo, MD, MPH; June 2018
Admitted to the oncology service for chemotherapy treatment, a woman with leukemia was noted to be neutropenic on hospital day 6. She had some abdominal discomfort and had not had a bowel movement for 2 days. The overnight physician ordered a suppository without realizing that the patient was neutropenic and immunosuppressed. Unaware that suppositories are contraindicated in neutropenic patients, the nurse administered the suppository. The patient developed a fever soon after receiving the suppository and required transfer to the intensive care unit for hypotension and management of septic shock.
- Spotlight Case
Eric Poon, MD, MPH; May 2018
An elderly man with a history of giant cell arteritis (GCA) presented to the rheumatology clinic with recurrent headaches one month after stopping steroids. A blood test revealed that his C-reactive protein was elevated, suggesting increased inflammation and a flare of his GCA. However, his rheumatologist was out of town and did not receive the test result. Although the covering physician saw the result, she relayed just the patient's last name without the medical record number. Because the primary rheumatologist had another patient with the same last name, GCA, and a normal CRP, follow-up with the correct patient was delayed until his next set of blood tests.
Brian F. Olkowski, DPT; Mary Ravenel, MSN; and Michael F. Stiefel, MD, PhD; April 2018
Following elective lumbar drain placement to treat hydrocephalus and elevated intracranial pressures, a woman was admitted to the ICU for monitoring. After the patient participated in prescribed physical therapy on day 5, she complained of headaches, decreased appetite, and worsening visual problems—similar to her symptoms on admission. The nurse attributed the complaints to depression and took no action. Early in the morning, the patient was found barely arousable. The lumbar drain had dislodged, and a CT scan revealed the return of extensive hydrocephalus.
- Spotlight Case
Anna Parks, MD, and Margaret C. Fang, MD, MPH ; March 2018
One day after reading only the first line of a final ultrasound result (which stated that the patient had a thrombosis), an intern reported to the ICU team that the patient had a DVT. Because she had postoperative bleeding, the team elected to place an inferior vena cava (IVC) filter rather than administer anticoagulants to prevent a pulmonary embolism (PE). The next week, a new ICU team discussed the care plan and questioned the IVC filter. The senior resident reviewed the radiology records and found the ultrasound report actually stated the thrombosis was in a superficial vein with low risk for PE, which meant that the correct step in management of this patient's thrombosis should have been surveillance.
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.
- Spotlight Case
Amy J. Starmer, MD, MPH, and Christopher P. Landrigan, MD, MPH ; February 2018
Admitted with an intracranial mass and hemorrhage, a woman with atrial fibrillation had been stable for several days when the ICU team and neurosurgeon decided that the benefits of low-dose DVT prophylaxis would outweigh the risk of serious bleeding. However, no dose or route of administration was specified, and the overnight resident ordered full-dose (rather than the prophylactic dose) anticoagulation. The hemorrhage grew and brain compression worsened, leaving the patient with no chance for meaningful recovery.
Mark Toles, PhD, RN; February 2018
Following a hospital stay for a broken arm and dislocated shoulder, an older man was discharged to a skilled nursing facility (SNF) for rehabilitation. Providers were concerned about his ability to live independently given results of cognitive and living skills assessments performed during the hospital stay. Although the hospital social worker had begun the process of applying for home care and meals for the patient, the SNF discharged him home with no access to care, food, or his medications.
- Spotlight Case
Roger Chou, MD; January 2018
A woman who had been taking naltrexone to treat alcohol use disorder was discharged to a skilled nursing facility (SNF) on opioids for pain following spinal fusion surgery. Although her naltrexone was held at the hospital in anticipation of starting opioids for pain control, the clinician performing medication reconciliation at the SNF overrode the drug–drug interaction alert and restarted the naltrexone. The SNF providers did not realize that the naltrexone blocked the pain-relieving effect of the opioids.
Christopher Moriates, MD; January 2018
Following a positive fecal immunochemical test (a screening test for colon cancer), a colonoscopy was ordered for a 50-year-old man. Two months later, the nurse called him to see if he had obtained the colonoscopy. The patient reported that he was unable to schedule it due to cost of the copayment. The primary physician called the insurance company and was informed that the colonoscopy would be covered in full if the indication was written as preventive rather than diagnostic. Ultimately, the patient received the colonoscopy and was diagnosed with colon cancer 6 months after his initial positive screening test.
Cristiane Gomes-Lima, MD, and Kenneth D. Burman, MD; November 2017
Two cases in which thyroid function tests were ordered appropriately but not acted upon in a timely fashion illustrate the challenges of thyroid emergencies. The patient in Case #1 had a history of hyperthyroidism and noted not taking his medications for months, yet no one addressed his abnormal thyroid function tests until hospital day 3. He had thyroid storm. In Case #2, providers neglected to follow up on the patient's abnormal thyroid function tests, even though she was taking a medication with a known risk of thyroid toxicity. She had myxedema coma.
Yael K. Heher, MD, MPH; November 2017
A resident entered orders into the EHR for a biopsy specimen of a patient's rash to be sent to pathology for evaluation. The biopsy specimen was delivered to the laboratory without a copy of the orders. Because pathology and the medicine service did not share the same EHR, the laboratory could neither view the orders nor direct the biopsy to the appropriate area for analysis without a printed copy. The next day, the resident attempted to look up the results but found none.
Nancy Staggers, PhD, RN; October 2017
Hospitalized with sepsis secondary to an infected IV line through which she was receiving treprostnil (a high-alert medication used to treat pulmonary hypertension), a woman was transferred to interventional radiology for placement of a new permanent catheter once the infection cleared. Sign-off between departments included a warning not to flush the line since it would lead to a dangerous overdose. However, while attempting to identify an infusion pump alarm, a radiology technician accidentally flushed the line, which led to a near code situation.
Casey A. Cable, MD; David J. Murphy, MD, PhD; and Greg S. Martin, MD, MSc; September 2017
For an older patient presenting with upper back pain and faint bilateral crackles, physicians misinterpreted a negative sepsis screen as a negative infection screen and delayed antibiotic treatment for pneumonia. The patient developed worsened hypoxemia, hypotension, delirium, and progressive organ failure.
Sarah Doernberg, MD, MAS; July 2017
A woman was discharged with instructions to complete an antibiotic course for C. difficile. The same day, the microbiology laboratory notified the patient's nurse that her blood culture grew Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause life-threatening infection. However, the result was not communicated to the medical team prior to discharge.