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
This case involves a procedural sedation error in a 3-year-old patient who presented to the... Read More
This Spotlight Case highlights two cases of falls in older patients in nursing homes. The commentary discusses how risk factors... Read More
This case represents a known but generally preventable complication of calcium chloride infusion, eventually necessitating surgical... Read More
All WebM&M: Case Studies (64)
- Clear filter(158)
- Communication Improvement(64)
- Education and Training(21)
- Quality Improvement Strategies(20)
- Technologic Approaches(19)
- Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE)(5)
- Human Factors Engineering(5)
- Specialization of Care(4)
- Care Coordination(3)
- Culture of Safety(3)
- Error Reporting and Analysis(3)
- Logistical Approaches(3)
- Computerized Decision Support(2)
- Legal and Policy Approaches(2)
- Policies and Operations(1)
- Discontinuities, Gaps, and Hand-Off Problems(30)
- Medication Safety(24)
- Diagnostic Errors(22)
- Psychological and Social Complications(10)
- Identification Errors(5)
- Medical Complications(3)
- Alert fatigue(1)
- Device-Related Complications(1)
- Interruptions and distractions(1)
- Nonsurgical Procedural Complications(1)
- Surgical Complications(1)
The cases described in this WebM&M reflect fragmented care with lapses in coordination and communication as well as failure to appropriately address medication discrepancies. These two cases involve duplicate therapy errors, which have the potential to cause serious adverse drug events. The commentary summarizes risk factors for medication discrepancies and approaches for safer medication administration, including the use of teach-back counseling, pharmacy-led medication reconciliation during transitions of care, and electronic health record-based strategies for safer prescribing.
A 71-year-old man presented to his physician with rectal bleeding and pain, which was attributed to radiation proctitis following therapy for adenocarcinoma of the prostate. He subsequently developed a potentially life-threatening complication of sepsis while awaiting follow up care for a spontaneous rectal perforation. The commentary addresses the importance of early identification and timely intervention in the event of treatment failure and the post-discharge follow-up programs to improve care coordination and communication during transitions of care.
This case describes a 20-year-old woman was diagnosed with a pulmonary embolism and occlusive thrombus in the right brachial vein surrounding a peripherally inserted central catheter (PICC) line (type, gauge, and length of time the PICC had been in place were not noted). The patient was discharged home but was not given any supplies for cleaning the PICC line, education regarding the signs of PICC line infection, or referral to home health services. During follow-up several days after discharge, the patient’s primary care provider noted that the PICC dressing was due to be changed and needed to be flushed, but the outpatient setting lacked the necessary supplies. An urgent referral to home health was placed, but the agency would be unable to attend to the patient for several days. The primary care provider changed the dressing, and the patient was referred to the emergency department for assessment. The commentary summarizes the risks of PICC lines, the role of infection prevention practices during the insertion and care of PICC lines, and the importance of patient education and skill assessment prior to discharge home with a PICC line.
A 49-year-old woman was referred by per primary care physician (PCP) to a gastroenterologist for recurrent bouts of abdominal pain, occasional vomiting, and diarrhea. Colonoscopy, esophagogastroduodenoscopy, and x-rays were interpreted as normal, and the patient was reassured that her symptoms should abate. The patient was seen by her PCP and visited the Emergency Department (ED) several times over the next six months. At each ED visit, the patient’s labs were normal and no imaging was performed. A second gastroenterologist suggested a diagnosis of intestinal ischemia to the patient, her primary gastroenterologist, her PCP, and endocrinologist but the other physicians did not follow up on the possibility of mesenteric ischemia. On another ED visit, the second gastroenterologist consulted a surgeon, and a mesenteric angiogram was performed, confirming a diagnosis of mesenteric ischemia with gangrenous intestines. The patient underwent near-total intestinal resection, developed post-operative infections requiring additional operations, experienced cachexia despite parenteral nutrition, and died of sepsis 3 months later. The commentary discusses the importance of early diagnosis of mesenteric ischemia and how to prevent diagnostic errors that can impede early identification and treatment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.