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 (603)
- Communication Improvement(325)
- Quality Improvement Strategies(176)
- Education and Training(150)
- Technologic Approaches(129)
- Human Factors Engineering(119)
- Error Reporting and Analysis(75)
- Specialization of Care(49)
- Logistical Approaches(41)
- Computerized Provider Order Entry (CPOE)(40)
- Culture of Safety(35)
- Legal and Policy Approaches(35)
- Computerized Decision Support(31)
- Policies and Operations(14)
- Care Coordination(4)
- Transparency and Accountability(2)
- Medication Safety(191)
- Discontinuities, Gaps, and Hand-Off Problems(176)
- Diagnostic Errors(141)
- Surgical Complications(86)
- Medical Complications(67)
- Device-Related Complications(58)
- Nonsurgical Procedural Complications(43)
- Psychological and Social Complications(40)
- Identification Errors(32)
- Interruptions and distractions(23)
- Alert fatigue(12)
- Transfusion Complications(6)
- Failure to rescue(4)
- Inpatient suicide(4)
- MRI safety(4)
- Second victims(2)
- Drug shortages(1)
- Fatigue and Sleep Deprivation(1)
- Transitions of Care(1)
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 69-year-old man with End-Stage Kidney Disease (ESKD) secondary to diabetes mellitus and hypertension, who had been on dialysis since 2014, underwent deceased donor kidney transplant. The case demonstrates the complex nature of management of allograft dysfunction due to vascular complications in a patient with deceased donor kidney transplant in the early post-transplant period. The commentary discusses how standardized follow-up imaging protocols can support early recognition and evaluation of allograft dysfunction due to vascular complications in kidney transplant recipients, as well the importance of team communication for patients requiring multiple interventions to reduce lag time in addressing further complications.
This case involves a 2-year-old girl with acute myelogenous leukemia and thrombocytopenia (platelet count 26,000 per microliter) who underwent implantation of a central venous catheter with a subcutaneous port. The anesthetist asked the surgeon to order a platelet transfusion to increase the child’s platelet count to above 50,000 per microliter. In the post-anesthesia care unit, the patient’s arterial blood pressure started fluctuating and she developed cardiac arrest. A “code blue” was called and the child was successfully resuscitated after insertion of a thoracostomy drainage (chest) tube. Unfortunately, the surgeon damaged an intercostal artery when he inserted the chest tube emergently, which caused further bleeding and two additional episodes of PEA arrest. This commentary addresses the importance of mitigating risk during procedures, balancing education of proceduralist trainees with risk to the patient, and prompt review of diagnostic studies by qualified individuals to identify serious complications.
This WebM&M features two cases involving patients undergoing surgical procedures who received perioperative opioid analgesics to aid in pain and sedation efforts and who experienced adverse events due to opioid stacking. The commentary provides evidence-based suggestions for optimal management of patients who are administered opioid therapy, including standardized sedation assessment, advanced patient monitoring strategies, appropriate use of naloxone, and non-opioid pain management strategies.
A 52-year-old woman presented for a lumpectomy with lymphoscintigraphy and sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) after being diagnosed with ductal carcinoma in situ (DICS). On the day of surgery, the patient was met in the pre-operative unit by several different providers (pre-operative nurse, resident physician, attending physician, and anethesiology team) to help prepare her for the procedure. In the OR, the surgical team performed two separate time-outs while the patient was being prepped, placed under general anesthesia, and draped. After the attending physician began operating, she realized that no radiotracer dye had been injected for the SNLB – a key process step that was supposed to have occurred prior to the surgery. The nuclear medicine team never saw the patient preoperatively, and none of the staff members or teams realized this until the patient was under general anesthesia with an open incision. The commentary discusses how pre-operative checklist protocols can help multidisciplinary teams avoid communication errors and reduce opportunities for adverse events.
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.
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 32-year-old pregnant woman presented with prelabor rupture of membranes at 37 weeks’ gestation. During labor, the fetal heart rate dropped suddenly and the obstetric provider diagnosed umbilical cord prolapse and called for an emergency cesarean delivery. Uterine atony was noted after delivery of the placenta, which quickly responded to oxytocin bolus and uterine massage. After delivery, the patient was transferred to the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) and monitored for 90 minutes, after which she was deemed stable, despite some abnormal vital signs. All monitor alarm functions were silenced to help the patient rest until a bed became available on the maternity floor. After another 90 minutes, the patient’s nurse discovered her unresponsive and the bedsheets were blood-soaked. A massive transfusion was ordered and uterotonic medications were administered, but vaginal bleeding continued. During an emergency laparotomy, the uterus was noted to be atonic despite uterotonic therapy, requiring an emergency hysterectomy. The commentary discusses the importance and use of early maternal warning systems, checklists and protocols to avoid poor maternal outcomes.
A 78-year-old woman with macular degeneration presented for a pars plana vitrectomy (PPV) under monitored anesthesia care (MAC) with an eye block. At this particular hospital, eye cases under MAC are typically performed with an eye block by the surgeon after the anesthesiologist has administered some short-acting sedation, commonly with remifentanil. On this day, there was a shortage of premixed remifentanil and the resident – who was unfamiliar with the process of drug dilution – incorrectly diluted the remifentanil solution. Shortly after receiving sedation, the patient became unresponsive, and a code was called. The commentary addresses the challenges of drug dilution and strategies to reduce dilutional errors and prioritize patient safety.
A 6-week-old infant underwent a craniotomy and excision of abnormal brain tissue for treatment of hemimegalencephaly and epilepsy. A right femoral central venous catheter and an arterial catheter were inserted, as well as 22-gauge intravenous catheter inserted into the external jugular vein, which was covered with surgical drapes. During the surgical procedure, the neurosurgeon adjusted the patient’s head, displacing the external jugular intravenous catheter into the subcutaneous tissue. The catheter’s dislodgment went unnoticed due to its position underneath the surgical drapes. The commentary discusses the importance intraoperative monitoring of intravenous catheters and the use of surgical safety checklists to improve communication and prevent surgical complications.
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.
This case describes multiple emergency department (ED) encounters and hospitalizations experienced by a middle-aged woman with sickle cell crisis and a past history of multiple, long admissions related to her sickle cell disease. The multiple encounters highlight the challenges of opioid prescribing for patients with chronic, non-cancer pain. The commentary discusses the limitations of prescription drug monitoring program (PDMP) data for patients with chronic pain, challenges in opioid dose conversions, and increasing patient safety through safe medication prescribing and thorough medication reconciliation.
A 31-year-old woman presented to the ED with worsening shortness of breath and was unexpectedly found to have a moderate-sized left pneumothorax, which was treated via a thoracostomy tube. After additional work-up and computed tomography (CT) imaging, she was told that she had some blebs and mild emphysema, but was discharged without any specific follow-up instructions except to see her primary care physician. Three days later, the patient returned to the same ED with similar symptoms and again was found to have had a left pneumothorax that required chest tube placement, but the underlying cause was not established. After she was found two weeks later in severe respiratory distress, she was taken to another ED by paramedics where the consulting pulmonary physician diagnosed her with a rare cystic lung disease. The commentary discusses the importance of CT scans for evaluating spontaneous pneumothorax and educating providers to increase awareness of rare cystic lung diseases.
A seven-year-old girl with esophageal stenosis underwent upper endoscopy with esophageal dilation under general anesthesia. During the procedure, she was fully monitored with a continuous arterial oxygen saturation probe, heart rate monitors, two-lead electrocardiography, continuous capnography, and non-invasive arterial blood pressure measurements. The attending gastroenterologist and endoscopist were serially dilating the esophagus with larger and larger rigid dilators when the patient suddenly developed hypotension. She was immediately given a fluid bolus, phenylephrine, and 100% oxygen but still developed cardiac arrest. Cardiopulmonary resuscitation was initiated with cardiac massage, but she could not be resuscitated and died. This commentary highlights the role of communication between providers, necessary technical steps to mitigate the risks of upper endoscopy in children, and the importance of education and training for care team members.
A 61-year-old male was admitted for a right total knee replacement under regional anesthesia. The surgeon – unaware that the anesthesiologist had already performed a right femoral nerve block with 20 ml (100mg) of 0.5% racemic bupivacaine for postoperative analgesia – also infiltrated the arthroplasty wound with 200 mg of ropivacaine. The patient was sedated with an infusion of propofol throughout the procedure. At the end of the procedure, after stopping the propofol infusion, the patient remained unresponsive, and the anesthesiologist diagnosed the patient with Local Anesthetic Systemic Toxicity (LAST). The commentary addresses the symptoms of LAST, the importance of adhering to local anesthetic dosing guidelines, and the essential role of effective communication between operating room team members.
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.
A 34-year-old morbidly obese man was placed under general anesthesia to treat a pilonidal abscess. Upon initial evaluation by an anesthesiologist, he was found to have a short thick neck, suggesting that endotracheal intubation might be difficult. A fellow anesthetist suggested use of video-laryngoscopy equipment, but the attending anesthesiologist rejected the suggestion. A first-year resident attempted to intubate the patient but failed. The attending anesthesiologist took over, but before intubation could be performed, the patient desaturated to 40-50%. A second attempt by the attending anesthesiologist at intubation with a glide scope also failed. The patient’s arterial saturation increased after administration of 100% oxygen by mask and he suffered no apparent neurological consequences. The commentary discusses best practices for managing high risk patients and appropriate use of advanced airway management devices.
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.