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WebM&M: Case Studies

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.

Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues? Submit your case below to help the medical community and to prevent similar errors in the future.

This Month's WebM&Ms

Update Date: August 5, 2022
Samson Lee, PharmD, and Mithu Molla, MD, MBA | August 5, 2022

This WebM&M highlights two cases where home diabetes medications were not reviewed during medication reconciliation and the preventable harm that could have occurred. The commentary discusses the importance of medication reconciliation, how to... Read More

Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues?
Have you encountered medical errors or patient safety issues? Submit your case below to help the medical community and to prevent similar errors in the future.

All WebM&M: Case Studies (94)

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1 - 20 of 94 WebM&M Case Studies

A 52-year-old man complaining of intermittent left shoulder pain for several years was diagnosed with a rotator cuff injury and underwent left shoulder surgery. The patient received a routine follow-up X-ray four months later. The radiologist interpreted the film as normal but noted a soft tissue density in the chest and advised a follow-up chest X-ray for further evaluation. Although the radiologist’s report was sent to the orthopedic surgeon’s office, the surgeon independently read and interpreted the same images and did not note the soft tissue density or order any follow-up studies. Several months later, the patient’s primary care provider ordered further evaluation and lung cancer was diagnosed. The commentary discusses how miscommunication contributes to delays in diagnosis and treatment and strategies to facilitate effective communication between radiologists and referring clinicians.  

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Saul N. Weingart, MD, MPP, PhD, Gordon D. Schiff MD, and Ted James, MD, FACS | December 23, 2020

After a breast mass was identified by a physician assistant during a routine visit, a 60-year-old woman received a diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound. The radiology assessment was challenging due to dense breast tissue and ultimately interpreted as “probably benign” findings. When the patient returned for follow-up 5 months later, the mass had increased in size and she was referred for a biopsy. Confusion regarding biopsy scheduling led to delays and, 7 months after initial presentation, the patient was diagnosed with invasive breast cancer involving the axillary nodes and spine. The commentary discusses the diagnostic challenges of potentially discordant findings between imaging and physical exams and the importance of structured inter-professional handoffs and closed-loop referrals in reducing diagnostic delays and associated harm. 

Tanya Rinderknecht, MD and Garth Utter MD, MSc| April 29, 2020
A 52-year old women presented to the emergency department with a necrotizing soft tissue infection (necrotizing fasciitis) after undergoing cosmetic abdominoplasty (‘tummy tuck’) elsewhere. A lack of communication and disputes between the Emergency Medicine, Emergency General Surgery and Plastic Surgery teams about what service was responsible for the patient’s care led to delays in treatment. These delays allowed the infection to progress, ultimately requiring excision of a large area of skin and soft tissue.
Karl Steinberg, MD, CMD, HMDC and Thaddeus Mason Pope, JD, PhD | December 18, 2019
A 63-year-old woman with hematemesis was admitted by a 2nd year medical resident for an endoscopy. The resident did not spend adequate time discussing her code status and subsequently, made a series of errors that failed to honor the patient’s preferences and could have resulted in an adverse outcome for this relatively healthy woman.
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Michael J. Barry, MD, and Marc B. Garnick, MD| August 10, 2019
Referred to urology for a 5-year history of progressive urinary frequency, nocturnal urination, and difficulty initiating a stream, a man had been reluctant to seek care for his symptoms because his father had a "miserable" experience with treatment for the same condition. A physician assistant saw him at that first visit and ordered a PSA test (despite the patient's expressed views against PSA testing) and cystoscopy (without explaining why it was needed), and urged the patient to self-catheterize (without any instructions on how to do so). The patient elected not to follow up with the tests because of this negative interaction. Ten weeks later, he sought care from a nurse practitioner at his primary care provider's office where his blood pressure and creatinine levels were found to be markedly elevated, 2L of urine were drained via catheter, and he was admitted to the hospital for renal failure.
Emily L. Aaronson, MD, MPH, and Christopher Kabrhel, MD, MPH| May 1, 2019
Following catheter-guided thrombolysis for a large saddle pulmonary embolism, a man was monitored in the intensive care unit. The catheters were removed the next day, and the patient was sent from the interventional radiology suite to the postanesthesia care unit, after which he was transferred to a telemetry bed on the stepdown unit. No explicit plan for anticoagulation was discussed with the accepting medical team. Shortly after the nurse found the patient lethargic, tachycardic, and hypoxic, the patient lost his pulse and a code was called.
Nicole M. Acquisto, PharmD, and Daniel J. Cobaugh, PharmD| March 1, 2019
Seen in the emergency department, a man with insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus had not taken insulin for 3 days. His blood glucose levels were in the 800s with an anion-gap acidosis and positive beta hydroxybutyrate. While awaiting an ICU bed for treatment of diabetic ketoacidosis, the patient received fluids, an insulin drip was started, and blood glucose levels were monitored hourly. When lab results showed he was improving, the team decided to convert his insulin drip to subcutaneous long-acting insulin. However, both the intern and the resident ordered 50 units of insulin, and the patient received both doses—causing his blood glucose level to dip into the 30s.
Stephanie Mueller, MD, MPH| February 1, 2019
To transfer a man with possible sepsis to a hospital with subspecialty and critical care, a physician was unaware of a formal protocol and called a colleague at the academic medical center. The colleague secured a bed, and the patient was sent over. However, neither clinical data nor the details of the patient's current condition were transmitted to the hospital's transfer center, and the receiving physician booked a general ward bed rather than an ICU bed. When the patient arrived, his mentation was altered and breathing was rapid. The nurse called the rapid response team, but the patient went into cardiac arrest.
Lina Bergman, RN, MSc, and Wendy Chaboyer, RN, PhD| February 1, 2019
Following surgery under general anesthesia, a boy was extubated and brought to postanesthesia care unit (PACU). Due to the patient's age and length of the surgery, the PACU anesthesiologist ordered continuous pulse-oximetry monitoring for 24 hours. Deemed stable to leave the PACU, the boy was transported to the regular floor. When the nurse went to place the patient on pulse oximetry, she realized he was markedly hypoxic. She administered oxygen by face mask, but he became bradycardic and hypotensive and a code blue was called.
Robert Chang, MD, and Scott Flanders, MD| February 1, 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.
Timothy R. Kreider, MD, PhD, and John Q. Young, MD, MPP, PhD| January 1, 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).
Thomas J. Balcezak, MD, MPH, and Ohm Deshpande, MD| October 1, 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.
David J. Lucier, MD, MBA, MPH, and Jeffrey L. Greenwald, MD| September 1, 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 1, 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.
A. Clinton MacKinney, MD, MS, and Nicholas M. Mohr, MD, MS| June 1, 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 1, 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.
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.
Robert E. O'Connor, MD, MPH| March 1, 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.
Amy J. Starmer, MD, MPH, and Christopher P. Landrigan, MD, MPH | February 1, 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 1, 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.