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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: December 14, 2022
Narath Carlile, MD, MPH, Clyde Lanford Smith, MD, MPH, DTM&H, James H. Maguire, MD, and Gordon D. Schiff, MD | December 14, 2022

This case describes a man in his 70s with a history of multiple myeloma and multiple healthcare encounters for diarrhea in the previous five years, which had always been attributed to viral or unknown causes, without any microbiologic or serologic... Read More

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Naileshni S. Singh, MD | December 14, 2022

A 63-year-old woman was admitted to a hospital for anterior cervical discectomy (levels C4-C7) and plating for cervical spinal stenosis under general anesthesia. The operation was uneventful and intraoperative neuromonitoring was used to help prevent... Read More

Mark Fedyk, PhD, Nathan Fairman, MD, MPH, Patrick S. Romano, MD, MPH, John MacMillan, MD, and Monica Miller, RN, MS, CCRN | December 14, 2022

A 65-year-old man with metastatic liver disease presented to the hospital with worsening abdominal pain after a partial hepatectomy and development of a large ventral hernia. Imaging studies revealed perforated diverticulitis. A goals-of-care... 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 (26)

Displaying 1 - 20 of 26 WebM&M Case Studies
Anamaria Robles, MD, and Garth Utter, MD, MSc | August 31, 2022

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.

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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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Katherine Glaser, MD, MPH, and Joy Vongspanich Dray, PharmD, BCACP, AAHIVP | May 26, 2021

A healthy 53-year-old man presented for sexually transmitted infection (STI) screening after being informed by the health department that he had sexual intercourse with a male partner who was recently diagnosed with and treated for syphilis. He acknowledged having unprotected sex with male partners, reported no history of syphilis or Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), and denied any penile lesions, discharge, or rash. Rapid plasma reagin (RPR) and Treponema pallidum particle agglutination (TPPA) assays were ordered, but the results were not reviewed. No futher testing or physical examination occurred; he was treated with one intramuscular dose of penicillin and no further follow-up was indicated. Two years later, the patient presented to his primary care provider (PCP) with symptoms of neurosyphilis. He was treated with 14 days of intravenous penicillin but had both an inflammatory reaction to the treatment and complications of tertiary syphilis. The commentary discusses the importance of conducting a complete physical examination and gathering a complete patient history, and describes the historical and cultural context of stigma that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, queer and/or questioning, intersex and asexual and/or ally (LGBTQIA) populations face.

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. 

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.
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.
Celina Garza Mankey, MD, and Prathibha Varkey, MD, MPH, MBA| May 1, 2014
An elderly man on warfarin and aspirin for chronic atrial fibrillation and previous cerebrovascular accident presented to the emergency department with a severe headache. Found to have bilateral subdural hematomas and a supratherapeutic INR (4.9), he was admitted to the ICU. Even though the patient was discharged with his warfarin discontinued permanently, the outpatient pharmacy kept it on the active medication list and refilled his mail order prescription automatically, leading again to an elevated INR.
William Ventres, MD, MA| March 1, 2014
A teenager presented to an urgent care clinic with new bumps and white spots near her tongue. Although she was diagnosed with herpetic gingivostomatitis, the after-visit summary incorrectly populated the diagnosis of "thrush" from the triage information, which was not updated with the correct diagnosis. The mistake on the printout caused confusion for the patient's mother and necessitated several follow-up communications to clear up.
Robert Hirschtick, MD| July 1, 2012
An elderly man presented to an emergency department (ED) with new onset chest pain. In reviewing the patient's electronic medical record (EMR), the ED physician noted a history of "PE," but the patient denied ever having a pulmonary embolus. Further investigation in the EMR revealed that, many years earlier, the abbreviation was intended to stand for "physical examination." Someone had mistakenly copied and pasted PE under past medical history, and the error was carried forward for years.
John Q. Young, MD, MPP| July 1, 2011
A healthy elderly man presented to his primary care doctor—a third-year internal medicine resident—for routine examination. A PSA test was markedly elevated, but the results came back after the resident had graduated, and the alert went unread. Months later, the patient presented with new onset low back pain and was diagnosed with metastatic prostate cancer.
Hardeep Singh, MD, MPH; Dean F. Sittig, PhD; Maureen Layden, MD, MPH| November 1, 2010
At two different hospitals, patients were instructed to continue home medications, even though their medication lists had errors that could have led to significant adverse consequences.
Lydia C. Siegel, MD; Tejal K. Gandhi, MD, MPH| January 1, 2009
Four months after surgery, a woman with osteosarcoma receiving outpatient chemotherapy was admitted for possible cellulitis. Discharged home on methotrexate and antibiotics, the patient developed methotrexate toxicity, partly due to a drug interaction.
Ted Eytan, MD, MS, MPH| October 1, 2008
An elderly, non–English-speaking man with diabetes was admitted to the hospital twice in 8 days due to hypoglycemia. At discharge, the patient was instructed not to take any antidiabetic medications. In between hospitalizations, he saw his primary care physician, who restarted an antidiabetic medication.
Mitch Rodriguez, MD, MBA; Rebecca Mannel, BS, IBCLC; Donna Frye, RN, MN| September 1, 2008
After several pediatric visits, parents of a newborn with low output and weight loss contact a lactation consultant, who discovered that ankyloglossia (tongue-tie) was preventing the infant from receiving adequate intake from breastfeeding.
David N. Juurlink, BPhm, MD, PhD| July 1, 2006
A patient presenting to the ED with chest pain was ruled out for MI, and discharged on an ACE inhibitor. Two weeks later, he returns with a critically elevated potassium level, has a cardiac arrest, and dies.
Elizabeth A. Howell, MD, MPP; Mark R. Chassin, MD, MPP, MPH| May 1, 2006
A woman with a fractured right foot receives spinal anesthesia and nearly has surgery for trimalleolar fracture and dislocation of the left ankle. Only immediately prior to surgery did the team realize that the x-ray was not hers.
Glenn Flores, MD| April 1, 2006
With no one to interpret for them and pharmacy instructions printed only in English, non–English-speaking parents give their child a 12.5-fold overdose of a medication.
Anna B. Reisman, MD| December 1, 2004
Feeling "weak" late at night, a patient calls his doctor's office. The covering physician misses a few clues, which might have prompted a different plan.
Ann Williamson, PhD, RN| May 1, 2004
An antenatal room left in disarray causes a charge nurse to search for the missing patient. Investigation reveals that a resident had performed an ultrasound on a nurse friend rather than a true "patient."