Law & Medicine

Malpractice Counsel: Missed Preeclampsia

Commentaries on cases involving undiagnosed preeclampsia in a 24-year-old postpartum patient and subdural hematoma in a 59-year-old man with a history of deep vein thrombosis



Missed Preeclampsia

A 24-year-old woman, gravida 1, para 1, aborta 0, presented to the ED complaining of a 1-day history of shortness of breath. Four days earlier, she had delivered a healthy baby boy via normal vaginal delivery and without complication. She denied chest pain, fever, or abdominal pain. She was otherwise in good health, stating that she was not taking any medications. She also denied smoking cigarettes.

On physical examination, the patient’s vital signs were remarkable for the following: heart rate (HR), 86 beats/minute; blood pressure (BP), 164/94 mm Hg; respiratory rate, 18 breaths/minute; temperature, 98.6oF. Oxygen saturation was 96% on room air. The head, eye, ear, nose and throat examination was unremarkable. The lungs were clear to auscultation bilaterally, and HR and heart rhythm were normal. The abdomen was soft and nontender without guarding or rebound. The lower extremities were remarkable for 1+ pedal and pretibial edema bilaterally.

Since this patient was 4 days postpartum, the emergency physician (EP) was concerned for pulmonary embolism (PE). A complete blood count, basic metabolic profile, and a serum troponin T level were ordered. The electrocardiogram revealed normal sinus rhythm without evidence of strain or injury. The chest X-ray was interpreted by radiology services as normal. Given the concern for PE, computed tomography angiography (CTA) of the chest was ordered. All laboratory studies, including the troponin T level, were reported as normal. The CTA scan of the chest was interpreted by radiology services as normal and without evidence of PE. The patient was discharged home with a diagnosis of “shortness of breath of unknown etiology.”

The patient presented to the same ED 2 days later, again with the chief complaint of shortness of breath. On examination, her BP was noted to be elevated and she had 1+ dependent edema bilaterally. Again, the EP was concerned for a PE and ordered a repeat CTA scan of the chest. This study, similar to the first, was read as normal, and showed no evidence of PE. The patient was diagnosed again with “shortness of breath of unknown etiology” and discharged home. The patient’s obstetrician-gynecologist (Ob/Gyn) was not consulted; however, the patient was encouraged to follow up with him.

The next day, the patient presented to the same ED via emergency medical services, this time with seizures; she had no prior history of a seizure disorder. On presentation to the ED, she was noted to be postictal, with an elevated BP and tachycardic with an HR of 104 beats/minute. On examination, the lungs were clear to auscultation and the lower extremities exhibited 1+ pedal and pretibial edema. A urinalysis revealed proteinuria. The patient was given 4 g of magnesium sulfate intravenously (IV) and her Ob/Gyn was consulted.

The patient was admitted to the hospital with a diagnosis of eclampsia. She was given an IV drip of magnesium and labetalol for the high BP. Unfortunately, the patient apparently had suffered an anoxic brain injury from the previous seizures and died on hospital day 3.

The family sued the treating EPs and the hospital for failure to diagnose preeclampsia on two separate ED presentations. They noted the patient’s Ob/Gyn was never consulted; no action was taken to treat the hypertension; and no urinalysis was ordered on either visit. The EPs and hospital settled the case prior to trial for several million dollars.


This is an incredibly sad case, and the EPs and hospital were right to settle and not go to trial. While PE was a reasonable diagnosis to consider in this patient on her first ED visit, it should not have been the only one in the differential diagnosis. The EP became anchored to this single diagnosis and refused to consider other alternative diagnoses—even after the CTA scan of the chest ruled out PE. Moreover, it appears the EP either never considered the significance of the elevated BP and dependent edema or just ignored these findings. To repeat essentially the same exact workup on the second visit does not make sense—one should “cast a wider net, not the same net.”

The diagnosis of “shortness of breath of unknown etiology” is similarly unacceptable. While this is a common and accepted diagnosis when it pertains to abdominal pain, the same is not true for dyspnea.

Preeclampsia is characterized by hypertension (BP >140/90 mm Hg) and proteinuria; associated symptoms include edema and hyperreflexia. Postpartum preeclampsia occurs infrequently and can develop up to 4 weeks after delivery.1 In one 10-year retrospective case series, the incidence of preeclampsia in the postpartum period was 5.7%, and nearly 16% went on to develop eclampsia.2 In a retrospective study of 22 postpartum preeclamptic patients, the median time to presentation was 5 days postpartum.1 In a similar retrospective study of 152 patients, 90% of such patients presented within 7 days.3 The patient in this case initially presented on postpartum day 4.

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