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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 (93)

Published Date
PSNet Publication Date
1 - 20 of 93 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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Jane L. Erb, MD, Sejal B. Shah, MD and Gordon D. Schiff, MD| January 7, 2022

An 18-year-old man with a history of untreated depression and suicide attempts (but no history of psychiatric hospitalizations) was seen in the ED for suicidal ideation after recent gun purchase. Due to suicidal ideation, he was placed on safety hold and a psychiatric consultation was requested. The psychiatry team recommended discharge with outpatient therapy; he was discharged with outpatient resources, the crisis hotline phone number, and strict return precautions. After two encounters with his primary care provider and another visit to the ED for suicidal ideation, the patient was found with a loaded gun in a hotel room. He was taken to the ED for a third time, where has was evaluated and involuntarily admitted to an inpatient psychiatric hospital for five weeks.  He was ultimately discharged with a diagnosis of “Bipolar 1 – moderate-severe with mixed features.” The commentary discusses the challenges of screening for suicide risk and the importance of continuity of care for patients at risk of self-harm and suicide.

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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Linnea Lantz, DO, Joseph Yoon, MD, and David Barnes, MD, FACEP | September 29, 2021

A 44-year-old man presented to his primary care physician (PCP) with complaints of new onset headache, photophobia, and upper respiratory tract infections. He had a recent history of interferon treatment for Hepatitis C infection and a remote history of cervical spine surgery requiring permanent spinal hardware. On physical examination, his neck was tender, but he had no neurologic abnormalities. He was sent home from the clinic with advice to take over-the-counter analgesics. Over the next several days, the patient was evaluated for the same or similar symptoms again by his PCP and was seen by the emergency department and urgent care clinics before being admitted to the hospital; however, he was misdiagnosed with Staphylococcal meningitis, and it was not until his third inpatient day when cervical magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed a spinal epidural abscess. The commentary discusses the multiple factors leading to erroneous interpretation tests for spinal epidural abscess and the importance of broadening differentials and avoiding premature closure during diagnosis.

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Cynthia Li, PharmD, and Katrina Marquez, PharmD| July 28, 2021

This commentary presents two cases highlighting common medication errors in retail pharmacy settings and discusses the importance of mandatory counseling for new medications, use of standardized error reporting processes, and the role of clinical decision support systems (CDSS) in medical decision-making and ensuring medication safety.

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.

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.

Wesley Valdes, DO and Garth Utter, MD, MSc | March 31, 2021

A 71-year-old frail, non-ambulatory woman presented to the emergency department with fever, sweating and dry cough. Her work-up included non-specific evidence of infection but two negative COVID-19 tests. No source of infection was identified, and she was discharged home after three days. During a video visit with her primary care provider the next day, the patient noted worsening symptoms as well as a skin breakdown on her “backside”; however, no rectal or genital exams were completed during her inpatient stay and the physician did not visualize the area during the video visit. The patient was readmitted to the hospital two days later in septic shock due to a necrotizing soft tissue infection related to a perirectal abscess. The commentary discusses the need for a broad differential diagnosis in seriously ill patients, the influence of diagnostic biases during a pandemic, and how to address perceived limitations in the ability to examine patients in the setting of virtual care.

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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Monica Donnelley, PharmD, Thomas Joseph Gintjee, PharmD, and James Go, PharmD| February 26, 2020
This commentary involves two patients who were discharged from the hospital to skilled nursing facilities on long-term antibiotics. In both cases, there were multiple errors in the follow up management of the antibiotics and associated laboratory tests. This case explores the errors and offers discussion regarding the integration of a specialized Outpatient Parenteral Antimicrobial Therapy (OPAT) team and others who can mitigate the risks and improve patient care.
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Erika Cutler, PharmD, and Delani Gunawardena, MD | December 18, 2019
A 55-year-old man visited his oncologist for a follow-up appointment after completing chemotherapy and reported feeling well with his abdominal and bony pain well controlled with opioid therapy.  At the end of the visit, his oncologist reordered his pain medication and, due to a best practice alert, also prescribed naloxone but failed to provide any instruction on its use. Later that day, the patient took the naloxone along with his opioid pain medication and within a minute experienced severe abdominal and bony pain, requiring admission to the emergency department.
Adam Wright, PhD, and Gordon Schiff, MD| October 30, 2019
Following resection of colorectal cancer, a hospitalized elderly man experienced a pulmonary embolism, which was treated with rivaroxaban. Upon discharge home, he received two separate prescriptions for rivaroxaban (per protocol): one for 15 mg twice daily for 10 days, and then 20 mg daily after that. Ten days later, the patient's wife returned to the pharmacy requesting a refill. On re-reviewing the medications with her, the pharmacist discovered the patient had been taking both prescriptions (a total daily dose of 50 mg daily). This overdose placed him at very high risk for bleeding complications.
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Mythili P. Pathipati, MD, and James M. Richter, MD| August 10, 2019
An elderly man had iron deficiency anemia with progressively falling hemoglobin levels for nearly 2 years. Although during that time he underwent an upper endoscopy, capsule endoscopy, and repeat upper endoscopy and received multiple infusions of iron and blood, his primary physician maintained that he didn't need a repeat colonoscopy despite his anemia because his previous colonoscopy was negative. The patient ultimately presented to the emergency department with a bowel obstruction, was diagnosed with colon cancer, and underwent surgery to resect the mass.
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