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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: May 16, 2022
Garima Agrawal, MD, MPH, and Mithu Molla, MD, MBA | May 16, 2022

This WebM&M describes two cases involving patients who became unresponsive in unconventional locations – inside of a computed tomography (CT) scanner and at an outpatient transplant clinic – and strategies to ensure that all healthcare teams are... Read More

Alexandria DePew, MSN, RN, James Rice, & Julie Chou, BSN | May 16, 2022

This WebM&M describes two incidences of the incorrect patient being transported from the Emergency Department (ED) to other parts of the hospital for tests or procedures. In one case, the wrong patient was identified before undergoing an... 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 (60)

1 - 20 of 60 WebM&M Case Studies
Katrina Pasao, MD and Pouria Kashkouli, MD, MS | March 31, 2022

This Spotlight Case describes an older man incidentally diagnosed with prostate cancer, with metastases to the bone. He was seen in clinic one month after that discharge, without family present, and scheduled for outpatient biopsy. He showed up to the biopsy without adequate preparation and so it was rescheduled. He did not show up to the following four oncology appointments. Over the course of the following year, the patient’s son and daughter were contacted at various points to re-establish care, but he continued to miss scheduled appointments and treatments. During a hospital admission, a palliative care team determined that the patient did not have capacity to make complex medical decisions. He was discharged to a skilled nursing facility, and then to a board and care when he failed to improve. He missed two more oncology appointments before being admitted with cancer-related pain. Based on the patient’s poor functional status, he was not considered a candidate for additional therapy. After a discussion of goals of care with the patient and daughter, he was enrolled in hospice. The commentary outlines key elements for assessing patient capacity, the importance of understanding the patient’s psychosocial history, and strategies to strengthen psychosocial training for medical and nursing trainees.

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John Landefeld, MD, MS, Sara Teasdale, MD, and Sharad Jain, MD| February 23, 2022

A 65-year-old woman with a history of 50 pack-years of cigarette smoking presented to her primary care physician (PCP), concerned about lower left back pain; she was advised to apply ice and take ibuprofen. She returned to her PCP a few months later reporting persistent pain. A lumbar spine radiograph showed mild degenerative disc disease and the patient was prescribed hydrocodone/acetaminophen in addition to ibuprofen. In the following months, she was seen by video twice for progressive, more severe pain that limited her ability to walk. A year after the initial evaluation, the patient presented to the Emergency Department (ED) with severe pain. X-rays showed a 5 cm lesion in her lung, a small vertebral lesion and multiple lesions in her pelvic bones. A biopsy led to a diagnosis of lung cancer and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed metastases to the liver and bone, as well as multiple small fractures of the pelvic girdle. Given the extent of metastatic disease, the patient decided against aggressive treatment with curative intent and enrolled in hospice; she died of metastatic lung cancer 6 weeks after her enrollment in hospice. The commentary summarizes the ‘red flag’ symptoms associated with low back pain that should prompt expedited evaluation, the importance of lung cancer screening for patients with a history of heavy smoking, and how pain-related stigma can contribute to contentious interactions between providers and patients that can limit effective treatment.

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Hannah Spero, MSN, APRN, Angela E. Usher, PhD, LCSW, Brian Howard MS1, and Frederick J. Meyers, MD | November 30, 2021

A 77-year-old man was diagnosed with a rectal mass. After discussing goals of care with an oncologist, he declined surgical intervention and underwent targeted radiotherapy before being lost to follow up. The patient subsequently presented to Emergency Department after a fall at home and was found to have new metastatic lesions in both lungs and numerous enhancing lesions in the brain. Further discussions of the goals of care revealed that the patient desired to focus on comfort and on maintaining independence for as long as possible. The inpatient hospice team discussed the potential role of brain radiotherapy for palliation to meet the goal of maintaining independence. The patient successfully completed a course of central nervous system (CNS) radiation, which resulted in improved strength, energy, speech, and quality of life. This case represents a perceived delay in palliative radiation, an “error” in care. The impact of the delay was lessened by the hospice team who role modeled integration of disease directed therapy with palliative care, a departure from the historic model of separation of hospice from disease treatment. 

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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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David T. Martin, MD and Diane O’Leary, PhD| June 30, 2021

Beginning in her teenage years, a woman began "feeling woozy" after high school gym class. The symptoms were abrupt in onset, lasted between 5 to 15 minutes and then subsided after sitting down. Similar episodes occurred occasionally over the following decade, usually related to stress. When she was in her 30s, she experienced a more severe episode of palpitations and went to the emergency department (ED). An electrocardiogram (ECG) was normal and she was discharged with a diagnosis of stress or possible panic attack. She continued to experience these symptoms for two more years and her primary care physician (PCP) suggested that she see a psychiatrist for presumed panic attacks. At the patient’s request, the PCP ordered a 24-hour Holter monitor, which was normal. When she was 40 years old, the patient experienced another severe episode and went to the ED. During an exercise treadmill test, she experienced another “woozy” spell and the ECG showed an elevated heart rate with narrow QRS complexes. She was diagnosed with paraoxymal supraventricular tacycardia (PSVT). The commentary discusses the diagnostic challenges of PSVT and approaches to reduce diagnostic uncertainty, especially given gender bias in attributing palpitations to psychiatric rather than cardiac causes.

Kelly Haas, MD, and Andrew Lee, PharmD| May 26, 2021

A 4-year-old (former 33-week premature) boy with a complex medical history including gastroschisis and subsequent volvulus in infancy resulting in short bowel syndrome, central venous catheter placement, and home parenteral nutrition (PN) dependence was admitted with hyponatremia. A pharmacist from the home infusion pharmacy notified the physician that an error in home PN mixing had been identified; a new file had been created for this chronic PN patient by the home infusion pharmacy and the PN formula in this file was transcribed erroneously without sodium acetate. This error resulted in only 20% of the patient’s prescribed sodium being mixed into the home PN solution for several weeks, resulting in hyponatremia and unnecessary hospital admission. The commentary highlights the importance of collaboration between clinicians and patients’ families for successful home PN and the roles of communication process maps, standardizing PN compounding, and order verification in reducing the risk of medication error.

Jennifer Branch, PharmD, Dakota Hiner, PharmD, and Victoria Jackson, MS, NP-C, PA-C | March 15, 2021

A 93-year-old man on warfarin with chronic heart failure, atrial fibrillation, and a ventricular assist device (VAD) was admitted to the hospital upon referral from the VAD team due to an elevated internal normalized ratio (INR) of 13.4. During medication review, the hospital team found that his prescribed warfarin dose was 4 mg daily on Mondays and Fridays and 3 mg daily on all other days of the week; this prescription was filled with 1 mg tablets. However, his medication list also included an old prescription for 5 mg tablets. After discussions with the patient’s family, it was determined that the patient’s daughter had inadvertently given the patient three 5 mg tablets of warfarin (total daily dose 15 mg) for the past two days. This commentary discusses the importance of understanding patient safety risk, communication across transitions of care, and improving caregiver education and engagement to reduce medication errors.

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. 

Kristine Chin, PharmD, Van Chau, PharmD, Hannah Spero, MSN, APRN, and Jessamyn Phillips, DNP | September 30, 2020

This case involves a 65-year-old woman with ongoing nausea and vomiting after an uncomplicated hernia repair who was mistakenly prescribed topiramate (brand name Topamax, an anticonvulsant and nerve pain medication) instead of trimethobenzamide (brand name Tigan, an antiemetic) by the outpatient pharmacy. The commentary uses the Swiss Cheese Model to discuss the safety challenges of “look-alike, sound-alike” (LASA) medications, the importance of phyiscians employing “soft” skills during medication dispensing, and how medication administration errors can occur in outpatient pharmacy settings, despite multiple opportunities for cross-verification. 

Malcom Mackenzie, MD and Celeste Royce, MD| June 24, 2020
Endometriosis is a common clinical condition that is often subject to missed or delayed diagnosis. In this case, a mixture of shortcomings in clinicians’ understanding of the disease, diagnostic biases, and the failure to validate a young woman’s complaints resulted in a 12-year diagnostic delay and significant physical and psychologic morbidity.
Erin Stephany Sanchez, MD, Melody Tran-Reina, MD, Kupiri Ackerman-Barger, PhD, RN, Kristine Phung, MD, Mithu Molla, MD, MBA, and Hendry Ton, MD, MS| April 29, 2020
A patient with progressive mixed respiratory failure was admitted to the step-down unit despite the physician team’s request to send the patient to the ICU. The case reveals issues of power dynamics, hierarchies, and implicit bias as young female physicians interact with experienced male members in the interdisciplinary team.
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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.
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.
Leah S. Karliner, MD, MAS| April 1, 2018
Although the electronic health record noted that a woman required a Spanish interpreter to communicate with providers, no in-person interpreter was booked in advance. A non–Spanish-speaking physician attempted to use the clinic's phone interpreter services to communicate with the patient, but poor reception prevented the interpreter and patient from hearing each other. The patient called her husband, but he was unavailable. Eventually, a Spanish-speaking medical assistant was able to interpret for the visit. Fortunately, the physician was able to determine that the patient required further cardiac testing before proceeding with a planned elective surgery.
Anne M. Turner, MD, MLIS, MPH| October 1, 2017
A Spanish-speaking woman presented to an urgent care clinic complaining of headache and worsening dizziness, for which the treating clinician ordered an MRI. When the results came in with no concerning findings later that day, the provider used Google Translate to write a letter informing the patient of the results. The patient interpreted the letter to mean that the results were concerning. This miscommunication led to patient distress and extra visits to both urgent care and the emergency department.
Daren K. Heyland, MD, MSc| April 1, 2017
When a 94-year-old woman presented for routine primary care, the intern caring for her discovered that the patient's code status was "full code" and that there was no documentation of discussions regarding her wishes for end-of-life care. The intern and his supervisor engaged the patient in an advance care planning discussion, during which she clarified that she would not want resuscitation or life-prolonging measures.
Eric Warm, MD| November 1, 2016
After a motor vehicle collision, a patient with headaches and difficulty concentrating visited the internal medicine clinic. The covering resident diagnosed postconcussive syndrome and prescribed amitriptyline. The patient returned several days later with persistent symptoms. She saw a different resident, who ordered an MRI and referred her to neurology but mistakenly made the referral to the neuromuscular, rather than headache, clinic. With continued severe headaches, the patient returned a third time and saw her primary resident provider, who referred her to the correct neurology clinic.
Brittany McGalliard, PharmD; Rita Shane, PharmD; and Sonja Rosen, MD| September 1, 2016
An elderly woman with multiple medical conditions experienced new onset dizziness and lightheadedness. A home visit revealed numerous problems with her medications, with discontinued medications remaining in her pillbox and a new prescription that was missing. In addition, on some days she was taking up to five blood pressure pills, when she was supposed to be taking only two.
Howard I. Maibach, MD| January 1, 2016
An attending physician recommended using acetic acid to evaluate a lesion on the perineum of a woman who had previously experienced a wart in the same area. The resident physician asked the medical assistant for acetic acid and unknowingly received trichloroacetic acid, which burned the patient's skin.
Steven R. Kayser, PharmD| September 1, 2015
Following a myocardial infarction, an elderly man underwent percutaneous coronary intervention and had two drug-eluting stents placed. He was given triple anticoagulation therapy for 6 months, with a plan to continue dual anticoagulation therapy for another 6 months. Although the primary care provider saw the patient periodically over the next few years, the medications were not reconciled and the patient remained on the dual therapy for 3 years.