In 2018, the parents of the then 9-year-old child brought him to Wellstar Paulding Hospital in Hiram, Ga., because of his severe abdominal pain and distention, among other symptoms. Following their examination, medical personnel at the hospital suspected the child’s symptoms were the result of severe constipation.
That evening, he was transferred to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, where a pediatric gastroenterologist oversaw his care. (Neither the Atlanta hospital nor Wellstar Paulding were defendants in the subsequent lawsuit.)
Late the following day, the child went into hypovolemic shock, a condition that interrupted the blood supply to his body. Admitted to the pediatric ICU, he was diagnosed with a dangerous complication of acute pancreatitis, necrotizing pancreatitis.
Further complications of his original disease led to a 4-month hospital stay, multiple surgeries, and other interventions. To this point, his medical expenses totaled more than $2.5 million.
His parents then sued the pediatric gastroenterologist who had overseen their child’s care. At issue during the 4-day trial was whether the doctor had properly monitored and treated his patient before his hypovolemic shock set in.
Their attorney sketched the “timeline” of the child’s decline, including his rapid heart rate and repeated vomiting. Given these symptoms, he argued, the standard of care required that steps be taken – including the proper tests and other interventions – to prevent the child’s acute pancreatitis from progressing even further.
“We are not asking you to say, ‘Should [the doctor] have immediately diagnosed pancreatitis,’ “ the attorney told the jury. “But the totality here requires you to think, ‘This might be more than just a backed-up kid.’ ”
The defense pushed back strenuously, however. It argued that the pediatric gastroenterologist had acted appropriately given the prevailing consensus, namely that the child was suffering from extreme constipation. Doctors at Wellstar Paulding, the first hospital where he was seen, suspected this diagnosis – and so, based on his exam and the child’s “non-specific” symptoms, did their client, the pediatric gastroenterologist, who saw him subsequently. “The only clinicians who actually laid hands on [the child] all thought constipation,” the attorney said during his closing argument.
The jury agreed, finding that the pediatric gastroenterologist had acted appropriately, based on the available evidence. Following the jury verdict, the defense attorney noted: Absent the “classic” symptoms of pancreatitis, the jury saw that his client “was working with a reasonable diagnosis until [the child’s] clinical picture deteriorated.”
ED doctors can reduce system errors, study says
Emergency physicians are often blamed for system errors beyond their control, asserts a study in the June issue of Emergency Medicine News.
The study – conducted by Tom Belanger, MD, an emergency physician in Texas and chair-elect of the American College of Emergency Physicians Workforce Section – sought to understand to what extent doctors themselves were aware of systemic problems affecting their job. Dr. Belanger surveyed 99 doctors who were asked to comment on a series of ED–related adverse outcomes.
To mitigate response bias, he randomly manipulated the degree to which system error was a perceived factor in each of the adverse cases. In other words, in some cases, the system was represented as a major factor leading to error, while, in other cases, its role was diminished.
Dr. Belanger also divided his doctor/respondents into two groups: The first was asked about his or her personal experience with systemic issues before being presented with the adverse cases; the second group was queried about this experience after being presented with the cases.
The result confirmed Dr. Belanger’s suspicions: Physicians in the first group – that is, those asked about “system factors” before reading about the cases – “were 1.7 times more likely ... to attribute the adverse outcomes in the cases to system factors. (Other significant variables – including whether their shift was busy – also contributed to doctors’ perceptions of adverse outcomes.)
Concluded Dr. Belanger: Since doctors “can identify factors that increase their chances of making mistakes,” system designers should take heed and make efforts to reduce “the probability of error.” If they drag their heels or continue to point to individual doctor error, “they should be held medically and legally liable.”
A version of this article first appeared on.