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)
A 64-year-old woman was admitted to the hospital for aortic valve replacement and aortic aneurysm repair. Following surgery, she became hypotensive and was given intravenous fluid boluses and vasopressor support with norepinephrine. On postoperative day 2, a fluid bolus was ordered; however, the fluid bag was attached to the IV line that had the vasopressor at a Y-site and the bolus was initiated. The error was recognized after 15 minutes of infusion, but the patient had ongoing hypotension following the inadvertent bolus. The commentary summarizes the common errors associated with administration of multiple intravenous infusions in intensive care settings and gives recommendations for reducing errors associated with co-administration of infusions.
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.
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 65-year-old man with a history of type 2 diabetes mellitus, hypertension, and coronary artery disease was transferred from a Level III trauma center to a Level I trauma center with lower extremity paralysis after a ground level fall complicated by a 9-cm abdominal aortic aneurysm and cervical spinal cord injury. Post transfer, the patient was noted to have rapidly progressive ascending paralysis. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed severe spinal stenosis involving C3-4 and post-traumatic cord edema/contusion involving C6-7. A continuous intravenous (IV) infusion of norepinephrine was initiated to maintain adequate spinal cord perfusion, with a target mean arterial pressure goal of greater than 85 mmHg. Unfortunately, norepinephrine was incorrectly programmed into the infusion pump for a weight-based dose of 0.5 mcg/kg/min rather than the ordered dose of 0.5 mcg/min, resulting in a dose that was 70 times greater than intended. The patient experienced bradycardia and cardiac arrest and subsequently died.
Two separate patients undergoing urogynecologic procedures were discharged from the hospital with vaginal packing unintentionally left in the vagina. Both cases are representative of the challenges of identifying and preventing retained orifice packing, the critical role of clear handoff communication, and the need for organizational cultures which encourage health care providers to communicate and collaborate with each other to optimize patient safety.
A pregnant patient was admitted for scheduled Cesarean delivery, before being tested according to a universal inpatient screening protocol for SARS-CoV-2. During surgery, the patient developed a fever and required oxygen supplementation. Due to suspicion for COVID-19, a specimen obtained via nasopharyngeal swab was sent to a commercial laboratory for reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) testing. However, due to delays in receiving those results, another sample was tested two days later with a newly developed in-house test, and a third sample was sent to the state public health laboratory. The in-house test returned as positive for SARS-CoV-2. The patient was discharged in stable clinical condition but was advised to quarantine for 14 days. Two days after the patient’s discharge, the commercial and state lab tests were both reported as negative. A root-cause analysis subsequently determined that the positive test run on the in-house platform was due to cross-contamination from a neighboring positive sample. The commentary discusses the challenges associated with SARS-CoV-2 testing, the unprecedented burden faced by health systems, and downstream consequences of false positive tests.
A 24-year-old woman with type 1 diabetes presented to the emergency department with worsening abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. Her last dose of insulin was one day prior to presentation. She stopped taking insulin because she was not tolerating any oral intake. The admitting team managed her diabetes with subcutaneous insulin but thought the patient did not meet criteria for diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA), but after three inpatient days with persistent hyperglycemia, blurred vision, and altered mental status, a consulting endocrinologist diagnosed DKA. The patient was transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU) and an insulin drip was started, after which the patient’s metabolic derangements normalized and her symptoms resolved. The commentary discusses the importance of educating patients and providers on risk factors for DKA and symptoms in type 1 diabetics, the use of a stepwise approach to diagnosing acid-based disorders, clinical decision support tools to guide physiologic insulin replacement, and the role of closed-loop communication to decrease medical error.
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.
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.
A 56-year-old women with a history of persistent asthma presented to the emergency department (ED) with shortness of breath and chest tightness that was relieved with Albuterol. She was admitted to the hospital for acute asthma exacerbation. Given a recent history of mobility limitations and continued clinical decompensation, a computed tomography (CT) angiogram of the chest was obtained to rule out pulmonary embolism (PE). The radiologist summarized his initial impression by telephone to the primary team but the critical finding (“profound evidence of right heart strain") was not conveyed to the primary team. The written radiology impression was not reviewed, nor did the care team independently review the CT images. The team considered her to be low-risk and initiated therapy with a direct oral anticoagulant (DOAC). Later that day, the patient became hemodynamically unstable and was transferred to the intensive care unit (ICU). She developed signs of stroke and required ongoing resuscitation overnight before being transitioned to comfort care and died. This commentary discusses the importance of avoiding anchoring bias, effective communication between care team members, and reviewing all available test results to avoid diagnostic errors.
A man with a history of previous airway operations was admitted for a rigid direct laryngoscopy. The consulting physician anesthesiologist prescribed a resident to administer ketamine to the patient as part of the general anesthesia protocol. The resident unintentionally located two vials of 100mg/mL ketamine (instead of the intended 10mg/mL vials that are used routinely) and erroneously administered 950mg of ketamine (instead of the intended 95mg). The dosing error resulted in delayed emergence from anesthesia and an unnecessary transfer to the intensive care unit for ventilation and monitoring, but was discharged home the following day. The commentary discusses the challenges of medication administration, the role of double-checking, and the importance of trainee supervision.
A 55-year-old man undergoing chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia was admitted to the hospital with a fever, neutropenia, and thrombocytopenia but physical examination did not reveal a focal site of infection. Blood and urine cultures were obtained, and he was started on IV antibiotics. His fever persisted and the cross-covering physician, following sign-out instructions from the primary team, requested repeat blood cultures but did not evaluate the patient in person. During rounds the next morning, the patient reported new oral pain (which had begun the previous day) and on physical exam was found to have mucositis. The associated commentary discusses the importance of in-person assessment in the hospital setting during cross-coverage and the value of structured, validated hand-off tools for communication among multidisciplinary teams.
A 65-year-old man with metastatic cancer and past medical history of schizophrenia, developmental delay, and COPD was admitted to the hospital with a spinal fracture. He experienced postoperative complications and continued to require intermittent oxygen and BIPAP in the intensive care unit (ICU) to maintain oxygenation. Upon consultation with the palliative care team about goals of care, the patient with telephonic support of his long time caregiver, expressed his wish to go home and the palliative care team, discharge planner, and social services coordinated plans for transfer home. Although no timeline for the transfer had been established, the patient’s code status was changed to “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR) with a plan for him to remain in the ICU for a few days to stabilize. Unfortunately, the patient was transferred out of the ICU after the palliative care team left for the weekend and his respiratory status deteriorated. The patient died in the hospital later that week; he was never able to go home as he had wished. The associated commentary describes how care inconsistent with patient goals and wishes is a form of preventable harm, discusses the need for clear communication between care team, and the importance of providers and healthcare team members serving as advocates for their vulnerable patients.
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.
A 3-month-old male infant, born at 26 weeks’ gestation with a history of bowel resection and anastomosis due to necrotizing enterocolitis, was readmitted for abdominal distension and constipation. He was transferred to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU) for management of severe sepsis and an urgent exploratory laparotomy was scheduled for suspected obstruction. The PICU team determined that the patient was stable for brief transport from the PICU to the operating room (OR). During intrahospital transport, the patient had two bradycardic episodes – the first self-resolved but the second necessitated chest compressions and intubation. The patient was rapidly moved to the OR where return of spontaneous circulation occurred within five minutes. The associated commentary describes the risks associated with intrahospital transport (particularly among pediatric patients) and critical processes that should be put in place to mitigate these risks via clear communication and structured decision-making among the intrahospital transport team.
A 60-year-old male presented to the emergency department (ED) with his partner after an episode of dizziness and syncope when exercising. An electrocardiogram demonstrated non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction abnormalities. A brain CT scan was ordered but the images were not assessed prior to initiation of anticoagulation treatment. While awaiting further testing, the patient’s heart rate slowed and a full-body CT scan demonstrated an intracranial hemorrhage. An emergent craniotomy was performed and the patient later died. The commentary discusses the influence of cognitive errors and the high-risk nature of anticoagulation contributing to this medical error, and the use of systematic interventions such as checklists and forcing functions to mitigate cognitive biases and prevent adverse outcomes.
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.
A 14-year-old girl with type 1 diabetes (T1D) was admitted to the hospital after two weeks of heavy menstrual bleeding as well as blurred vision, headache and left arm numbness. MRI revealed an acute right middle cerebral artery (MCA) infarct. Further evaluation led to a diagnosis of antiphospholipid syndrome. The patient was persistently hyperglycemic despite glycemic management using her home insulin pump and continuous glucose monitor. Over the course of her hospitalization, her upper extremity symptoms worsened, and she developed upper extremity, chest, and facial paresthesia. Imaging studies revealed new right MCA territory infarcts as well as splenic and bilateral infarcts. The case describes how suboptimal inpatient management of diabetes technology contributed to persistent hyperglycemia in the setting of an acute infarction. The commentary discusses best practices for optimizing patient safety when managing hospitalized patients on home insulin pumps.
A 58-year-old female receiving treatment for transformed lymphoma was admitted to the intensive care unit (ICU) with E. coli bacteremia and colitis secondary to neutropenia, and ongoing hiccups lasting more than 48 hours. She was prescribed thioridazine 10 mg twice daily for the hiccups and received four doses without resolution; the dose was then increased to 15 mg and again to 25 mg without resolution. When she was transferred back to the inpatient floor, the pharmacist, in reviewing her records and speaking with the resident physician, thioridazine (brand name Mellaril) had been prescribed when chlorpromazine (brand name Thorazine) had been intended. The commentary discusses the use of computerized physician order entry (CPOE) to reduce prescribing errors in inpatient settings and the importance of having a pharmacist on the patient care team to avoid prescribing errors involving less commonly prescribed medications.
A 73-year-old female underwent a craniotomy and aneurysm clipping to resolve a subarachnoid hemorrhage due to a ruptured aneurysm. The neurosurgery resident confirmed the presence of neuromonitoring with the Operating Room (OR) front desk but the neuromonitoring technician never arrived and the surgeon – who arrived after the pre-op huddle – decided to proceed with the procedure in their absence. Although no problems were identified during surgery, the patient emerged from anesthesia with left-sided paralysis, and post-op imaging showed evidence of a new stroke. The commentary discusses the importance of huddles, ensuring closed-loop communication involving residents, and balancing benefits and risks during emergent surgical care.