Medical Verdicts

Would a cholesterol medication have made a difference? … More

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The cases in this column are selected by the editors of The Journal of Family Practice from Medical Malpractice: Verdicts, Settlements & Experts, with permission of the editor, Lewis Laska ( The information about the cases presented here is sometimes incomplete; pertinent details of a given situation therefore may be unavailable. Moreover, the cases may or may not have merit. Nevertheless, these cases represent the types of clinical situations that typically result in litigation.


Would a cholesterol medication have made a difference?

A WOMAN WITH A HISTORY OF HYPERTENSION and hyperlipidemia sought treatment from her family physician (FP) for a protracted, nonproductive cough. The FP diagnosed sinusitis and reactive airway disease and prescribed steroids and antibiotics. The patient returned to the FP 5 more times over the next 9 weeks. The patient’s symptoms waxed and waned, but her cough continued. She reported chest tightness and shortness of breath on exertion. A chest x-ray revealed moderate heart enlargement. An echocardiogram was scheduled.

During the patient’s last visit, her FP noted that she had shortness of breath on exertion, but no chest pain. Three days later she suffered a massive myocardial infarction (MI). Cardiac catheterization found 80% occlusion of the left anterior descending artery. She underwent angioplasty and stent placement; after this procedure her ejection fraction was 25% to 30%. One month later, the patient received a pacemaker/defibrillator. The patient’s cardiac symptoms returned 7 months later, and she underwent another angioplasty. She improved and her last echocardiogram showed near-normal heart function.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM Although the patient had persistently elevated cholesterol levels, the FP failed to order repeat cholesterol studies and arrange for drug therapy. If the patient’s hyperlipidemia had been medically managed, her coronary artery disease would not have progressed to unstable angina and MI. The FP also failed to obtain routine electrocardiograms or an urgent cardiac consult after a chest x-ray showed an enlarged heart. The FP also failed to send the patient to an emergency department when she complained of shortness of breath on exertion.

THE DEFENSE An urgent cardiac work-up was not indicated and the patient’s cholesterol levels were only mildly elevated and did not require medical management. Her MI was unavoidable since most infarctions are due to plaque rupture in coronary vessels that aren’t occluded enough to require treatment.

VERDICT $1.6 million Michigan verdict.

COMMENT I think the key issue in this difficult diagnostic case is not the lack of prescribing cholesterol medication, but the repeated office visits with no definite diagnosis. If the physician had escalated the evaluation more quickly, the MI might have been avoided.

Narcotic misstep has tragic consequences

Don’t break the law, even if your patient asks you to. Know your state laws regarding narcotic prescribing.A 47-YEAR-OLD MAN SOUGHT TREATMENT FOR DRUG ADDICTION. His physician prescribed methadone, despite not being licensed to do so. After 4 days of taking methadone, the patient went to the hospital because he felt dizzy and was having difficulty breathing. Two days after being examined and discharged, he died from methadone toxicity.

PLAINTIFF’S CLAIM The toxicity was caused by simultaneous use of methadone and alprazolam, which the patient also had been prescribed. The physician failed to recognize the potential toxicity and should have performed testing that could have revealed the simultaneous use of other drugs. In addition, the physician was not licensed to prescribe methadone.

THE DEFENSE The physician had recommended a licensed, qualified facility that could have treated the plaintiff, but the plaintiff preferred treatment in a setting that allowed him to remain anonymous.

VERDICT $1.15 million New York settlement.

COMMENT Don’t break the law, even if your patient asks you to. Know your state laws regarding narcotic prescribing. These are getting more stringent due to the rapid rise in prescription narcotic overdose deaths in the United States.

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