Medicolegal Issues

Malpractice Counsel: Diverticulitis

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A 44-year-old woman presented to the ED complaining of crampy lower abdominal pain with nausea and vomiting. The patient described gradual onset 2 days prior, with symptoms worsening over the previous 12 hours. She denied diarrhea, constipation, or blood in her stool. She did admit to frequency of urination, but no dysuria or hematuria. She was gravida 2, para 2, aborta 0, with a last menstrual period 3 weeks prior. She denied vaginal bleeding or discharge. Her past medical history was unremarkable, she was on no medications, and denied alcohol use. She did admit to smoking one pack of cigarettes per day.

On physical examination, the patient’s vital signs were: blood pressure, 132/68 mm Hg; heart rate, 96 beats/min; respiratory rate, 18 breaths/min; and temperature, 99.8°F. Oxygen saturation was 99% on room air.

The head, ears, eyes, nose, and throat (HEENT) examination was completely normal, as was the heart and lung examination. The patient was tender to palpation in the lower abdomen, but without guarding or rebound. Bowel sounds were present and normoactive. A pelvic examination, including a bimanual examination, demonstrated mild left ovarian tenderness but without mass or cervical motion tenderness. The patient did not exhibit any costovertebral angle tenderness bilaterally. No rectal examination was performed.

The emergency physicians (EPs) ordered a complete blood count (CBC), basic metabolic profile (BMP), urinalysis, urine pregnancy test, and a vaginal wet preparation. In addition, the patient was administered 500 cc’s of normal saline intravenously (IV) and ondansetron (Zofran) 4 mg IV.

The urine pregnancy test result came back negative. The urinalysis was remarkable for positive leukocyte esterase, with five to 10 white cells and bacteria present. The CBC showed a mild leukocytosis, but with a normal hemoglobin and hematocrit. The BMP and vaginal wet preparation were completely normal.

The EP was concerned the patient might have something more serious than a simple urinary tract infection (UTI), so she ordered a computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen and pelvis with IV contrast.

The radiologist interpreted the CT scan as normal. The patient was discharged home with a prescription for an antibiotic for her UTI, encouraged to drink liquids, and instructed to follow-up with her primary care physician in 1 week.

The patient returned to the same ED approximately 48 hours later with worsening abdominal pain. On this presentation, she was tachycardic (110 beats/min) with a temperature of 101°F. The abdominal examination was remarkable for diffuse tenderness and voluntary guarding. The patient was administered IV fluids, morphine, and ondansetron. A repeat CT scan of the abdomen and pelvis with IV contrast showed a perforated sigmoid colon, with leakage of bowel contents into the peritoneum. The EP immediately started IV fluid resuscitation and administered IV antibiotics. The patient was taken emergently to the operating room by general surgery. The colon was repaired and a colostomy placed. The patient was able to be discharged home on day number 5.

The patient sued the hospital and the treating EP for failure to make the proper diagnosis on the initial ED visit, resulting in the patient having a long and difficult recovery, and the need for a colostomy. At trial, the jury returned a defense verdict.

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