Medicolegal Issues

Malpractice Counsel: Constipation, missing diabetes



The risk of complications from administering a soapsuds enema to an immunocompetent ED patient without signs or symptoms of peritonitis is exceedingly low. While no good data exist on the rate of complications from enemas administered for constipation, perforation of the bowel from barium enemas occurs in only 0.02% to 0.04% of patients undergoing radiologic imaging.4 The jury appears to have come to the proper conclusion in this atypical presentation of an uncommon condition with a rare complication.

Missed Diabetes Mellitus

A 27-year-old man presented to the ED with a 3-day history of severe abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting. The patient denied fevers, chills, or diarrhea, as well as any sick contacts. The patient stated he was otherwise in good health, on no medications, and had no known drug allergies. He denied alcohol or tobacco use.

His vital signs at presentation were: temperature, 98.6°F; pulse, 116 beats/minute; blood pressure, 152/92 mm Hg; and respiratory rate, 24 breaths/minute. Oxygen saturation was 100% on room air. On head, eyes, ears, nose, and throat examination, the patient’s mucous membranes were noted to be dry. The lung examination revealed bilateral breath sounds clear to auscultation. The heart examination was remarkable for tachycardia, but the rhythm was regular and with no murmurs, rubs, or gallops. The abdomen was soft with slight diffuse tenderness, but no guarding, rebound, or masses.

The EP ordered 1 L normal saline IV and ondansetron 4 mg IV for the nausea and vomiting. No laboratory or imaging studies were ordered.

On reexamination approximately 1 hour later, the patient denied any abdominal pain and stated he felt improved and was no longer nauseous. The abdominal examination remained unchanged. The patient was discharged home with a prescription for ondansetron and instructed to return to the ED if his symptoms did not improve within the next 12 hours.

The patient did not return to the ED, but was found dead at home 3 days later. An autopsy revealed the patient died from metabolic consequences of diabetes mellitus (DM). The plaintiff’s family argued the standard of care required a complete set of laboratory studies, the results of which would have revealed the hyperglycemia, prompting further evaluation and treatment. The defense contended the standard of care did not require laboratory evaluation since the patient responded well to the IV fluids and ondansetron, reported an improvement in pain and nausea, and had no history of DM. At trial, a defense verdict was returned.


Emergency physicians are well versed in diagnosing and treating DM and its complications. Typical symptoms of new-onset diabetes include polyuria, polydipsia, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and lack of energy. Occasionally, the patient will present with more severe symptoms (eg, altered mental status) when diabetic ketoacidosis is the initial presentation of the disease. It is unclear from the medical records in this case whether additional history, such as polyuria, was obtained. If so, and the answers were in the affirmative, this information might have led the EP to order laboratory studies. Similarly, we do not know how many episodes of emesis the patient experienced—eg, only one to two episodes of emesis or more than 10. It is important to have an appreciation of the severity of the presenting symptoms.

Emergency physicians frequently diagnose and manage patients appropriately without ordering laboratory or imaging studies. Acute asthma attacks, migraine headaches, bronchitis, sprains, and upper respiratory tract infections are just a few examples of the many conditions that are frequently managed by EPs based solely on history and physical examination. However, it is important the EP take a thorough enough history and physical examination to ensure confidence in excluding more severe disease processes. The severity of the symptoms must also be considered in the decision to order laboratory or other evaluation.

In this day and age of point-of-care testing, one should consider checking the glucose and electrolytes in patients with symptoms consistent with fluid loss (ie, vomiting, diarrhea, decreased oral intake).

A Note about Diabetes Mellitus

Emergency physicians should be aware of the increasing incidence of DM in the United States and around the world. The global prevalence of diabetes in adults in 2013 was reportedly 8.3% (382 million people), with 14 million more men than women diagnosed with the disease.1

Broadly defined, diabetes is a group of metabolic diseases characterized by chronic hyperglycemia resulting from defects in insulin secretion, insulin action, or both.1 Type 1 DM constitutes approximately 5% to 10% of patients diagnosed with diabetes and is due to the destruction of beta cells in the pancreas.1 It accounts for approximately 80% to 90% of DM in children and adolescents, and is thought to be present in approximately 3 million patients in the United States in 2010.1 Type 2 DM is the most common form, with 90% to 95% of patients belonging to this category, most of whom are adults. The problem in type 2 DM is primarily insulin resistance, as opposed to a lack of insulin. Obesity is the most common cause of insulin resistance in type 2 DM.1


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