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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 (38)

1 - 20 of 38 WebM&M Case Studies
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. 

By Gary S. Leiserowitz, MD, MS and Herman Hedriana, MD| November 25, 2020

After a failed induction at 36 weeks, a 26-year-old woman underwent cesarean delivery which was complicated by significant postpartum hemorrhage. The next day, the patient complained of severe perineal and abdominal pain, which the obstetric team attributed to prolonged pushing during labor. The team was primarily concerned about hypotension, which was thought to be due to hypovolemia from peri-operative blood loss. After several hours, the patient was transferred to the medical intensive care unit (ICU) with persistent hypotension and severe abdominal and perineal pain. She underwent surgery for suspected necrotizing fasciitis, but necrosis was not found. The patient returned to the surgical ICU but deteriorated; she returned to the operating room, where she was found to have necrotizing soft tissue infection, including in the flanks, labia, and uterus. She underwent extensive surgery followed by a lengthy hospital stay. The accompanying commentary discusses the contribution of knowledge deficits and cognitive biases to diagnostic errors and the importance of structured communications between professionals.

Gary S. Leiserowitz, MD, MS and Herman Hedriana, MD| July 29, 2020

A 28-year-old woman arrived at the Emergency Department (ED) with back pain, bloody vaginal discharge, and reported she had had a positive home pregnancy test but had not received any prenatal care and was unsure of her expected due date. The ED intern evaluating the patient did not suspect active labor and the radiologist remotely reviewing the pelvic ultrasound mistakenly identified the fetal head as a “pelvic mass.” Four hours later, the consulting OB/GYN physician recognized that the patient was in her third trimester and in active labor. She was transferred to Labor and Delivery for labor management, which led to an emergency cesarean section. A neonatal seizure was observed, and brain MRI revealed a perinatal stroke. The Commentary discusses the types of diagnostic errors leading to missed diagnoses and the importance of appropriate supervision of physician trainees.

Zara Cooper, MD, MSc| September 25, 2019
A man with a history of T6 paraplegia came to the emergency department with delirium, hypotension, and fever. Laboratory results revealed a high white blood cell count and mild elevation of bilirubin and liver enzymes. A stat abdominal CT showed a mildly thickened gallbladder. The patient was admitted to the intensive care unit with a provisional diagnosis of septic shock and treated with broad-spectrum antibiotics and intravenous fluids. He was transferred to the medical ward on hospital day 2, where the receiving hospitalist realized the diagnosis was still unclear. A second CT scan showed a 6 cm abscess near the liver, likely arising from a perforated gallbladder. The patient underwent an urgent open cholecystectomy and drainage of the abscess.
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).
Kevin Moore, MBBS, PhD| December 1, 2015
A man with cirrhosis and abdominal distension was found to have significant ascites. The emergency department providers performed a large volume paracentesis to relieve his symptoms, but, as the 10th liter of fluid was removed, the patient became acutely hypotensive.
Charlie C. Kilpatrick, MD| September 1, 2015
After several days of abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting, a pregnant woman visited the emergency department and was swiftly discharged with antibiotics for a UTI. However, she returned the next day with unchanged abdominal pain and more nausea and vomiting. Apart from a focused ultrasound to document her pregnancy, no further testing was done. The patient again returned the following day with increased pain and now appeared more ill. An MRI revealed a ruptured appendix.
Edward Etchells, MD, MSc| June 1, 2015
After multiple visits to both his primary care provider and urgent care for chronic burning left foot pain attributed to peripheral neuropathy, a man presented to the emergency department with worsening symptoms. His left lower leg was dusky and extremely tender, with non-palpable pulses. CT angiography revealed complete blockage of the left superficial femoral artery due to atherosclerotic peripheral arterial disease. The patient required emergent vascular bypass surgery on his left leg, and ultimately, an above-the-knee amputation.
Frank I. Scott, MD, MSCE, and Gary R. Lichtenstein, MD| June 1, 2015
Admitted to the hospital with a small bowel obstruction and ileitis consistent with an exacerbation of Crohn disease, a man was given empiric antibiotic therapy and infliximab prior to consultation with gastroenterology. Gastroenterology recommended sending stool studies and initiating infliximab only after those studies were negative for infection. The stool studies were sent, but the primary team did not discontinue the infliximab. The patient was found to have Clostridium difficile infection.
David Shimabukuro, MD| May 1, 2015
An older woman with a history of pulmonary hypertension, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and coronary artery disease was admitted to the hospital with pneumonia. She received levofloxacin (administered approximately 3 hours after presentation). Twenty-four hours after admission, her blood cultures grew methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and vancomycin was added to her antibiotic regimen. The patient developed respiratory failure requiring mechanical ventilation as well as septic shock requiring vasopressors.
Urmimala Sarkar, MD, MPH| October 1, 2013
Although the mother of a child, born male who identified as and expressed externally as a girl, had alerted the clinic of the child's preferred name when making the appointment, the medical staff called for the patient in the waiting room using her legal (masculine) name.
Robin R. Hemphill, MD, MPH| September 1, 2013
Admitted to the hospital after hours, a patient with a history of type A aortic dissection had his CT scan read as "no acute changes." However, the CT scan had been compared to a text report of a previous scan, rather than the images. The patient died several hours later, and autopsy revealed the dissection had progressed and ruptured.
Nicholas Symons, MBChB, MSc| August 21, 2013
An elderly woman with severe abdominal pain was admitted for an emergency laparotomy for presumed small bowel obstruction. Shortly after induction of anesthesia, her heart stopped. She was resuscitated and transferred to the intensive care unit, where she died the next morning. The review committee felt this case represented a diagnostic error, which led to unnecessary surgery and a preventable death.
Admitted to the hospital with headache and word-finding difficulties, a man was given a preliminary diagnosis of vasculitis. Although serial imaging studies seemed to indicate progression of his brain lesions, these were not biopsied and discovered to be glioblastoma multiforme until 4 months later. The delay in diagnosis contributed to his rapid clinical decline.
Krishan Soni, MD, MBA, and Gurpreet Dhaliwal, MD| July 1, 2012
A man presented to the emergency department (ED) complaining of knee problems, and the triage nurse wrote down the chief complaint as "bilateral knee pain." The ED physician diagnosed a musculoskeletal injury and prepared to discharge him, but the patient was noticeably unsteady. Further examination and imaging revealed a subdural hematoma requiring urgent neurosurgical intervention.
Annette J. Johnson, MD, MS| October 1, 2011
When a hospitalized man developed an arrhythmia, the night float resident checked a radiology report that stated the patient had a DVT. Intervention was started based on that assumption. However, the radiology report had been transcribed incorrectly.
Thomas H. Gallagher, MD| May 1, 2011
Transferred to a tertiary hospital, a child with severe swelling of the brain is found to have venous sinus thromboses and little chance of survival. Further review revealed that the referring hospital had missed subtle signs of cerebral edema on the initial CT scan days earlier, raising the question of whether to disclose the errors of other facilities or caregivers.
Christopher Roy, MD| February 1, 2011
A week after successful pacemaker placement, an elderly man developed chest pain and was admitted to the hospital without having an urgent echocardiogram. Although providers felt that he "looked fine," the patient became acutely hypotensive, developed ventricular tachycardia and pulseless electrical activity, and required emergent resuscitative measures for cardiac tamponade.