Law & Medicine

Don’t Take the Fall With Head Injuries

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The case patient was elderly. He had a chronic malignancy and sustained a fall down the stairs. He was taking sleeping pills, which may have slowed reflexive protective mechanisms after he started to fall (resulting in greater force imparted to his head). Multiple myeloma can predispose a patient to coagulopathy, and we don’t know in this case if this patient’s multiple myeloma made him more susceptible to bleeding—but it certainly didn’t help.8 The patient’s age, the mechanism of injury, and the history of malignancy made this a setup for hemorrhage.

Interestingly, we are not given details about how the patient looked during his suture removal. We are told the time between the initial fall and deterioration was 6 days. Scalp sutures were removed “about a week later,” which was after the deterioration—so this can’t be correct. Removing scalp sutures after 5 days seems premature, but that is the only possibility if 6 days elapsed between the fall and the deterioration.

In short, these are difficult cases. If intracranial bleeding can be subtle and delayed, how can we be sure a patient is not experiencing a bleed? We can only apply the relevant standard of care using all the clinical information we have. The Canadian CT Head Rule and New Orleans Criteria are clinical tools designed to help providers determine when to image (see Table for details).9

Comparison of the Canadian CT Head Rule and the New Orleans Criteria

Applying the Canadian CT Head Rule to the facts of this case, we would image the patient because he fell down a “flight” of stairs (which is > 5 stairs) and he is 77 years old (older than 65). The New Orleans Criteria require head CT for minor injury with any positive findings.9 Because the patient is older than 60, he would be scanned according this rule.

In this case, the tools indicate scanning would have been appropriate. The patient’s multiple myeloma might have further impelled a decision to image. However, the jury was persuaded that the defendant’s negative neurologic exam was reasonable under the circumstances. This was likely made possible by the physician’s good recordkeeping and demonstrated genuine concern for the patient’s well-being—as well as a differing viewpoint of the patient’s age and health status.

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