A 40-year-old white woman presented to clinic with multiple pruritic skin lesions on her abdomen, arms, and legs that had developed over a 2-month period. The patient reported that she’d been feeling tired and had been experiencing psychological stressors in her personal life. Her medical history was significant for psoriasis (which was controlled), and her family history was significant for breast and bone cancer (mother) and asbestos-related lung cancer (maternal grandfather).
A physical examination, which included breast and pelvic exams, was unremarkable apart from the lesions located on her abdomen, arms, and legs. On skin examination, we noted multiple polygonal, planar papules and plaques of varying size with an overlying scale (FIGURE).
The physician obtained a biopsy of one of the skin lesions, and it was sent to a dermatopathologist to evaluate. Unfortunately, though, the patient’s history and a description of the lesion were not included with the initial biopsy requisition form. Based on the biopsy sample alone, the dermatopathologist’s report indicated a diagnosis of seborrheic keratosis.
A search for malignancy. Any case of sudden, extensive seborrheic keratosis is suspected to be a Leser-Trélat sign, which is known to be associated with human immunodeficiency virus or underlying malignancy—especially in the gastrointestinal system. The physician talked to the patient about the possibility of malignancy, and an extensive work-up was performed, including multiple laboratory tests, computed tomography (CT) imaging, an esophagogastroduodenoscopy, a colonoscopy, and mammography. None of the test results showed signs of an underlying malignancy.
In light of the negative findings, the physician reached out to the dermatopathologist to further discuss the case. It was determined that the dermatopathologist did not receive any clinical information (prior to this discussion) from the primary care office. This was surprising to the primary care physician, who was under the assumption that the clinical chart would be sent along with the biopsy sample. With this new information, the dermatopathologist reexamined the slides and diagnosed the lesion as lichen planus, a rather common skin disease not associated with cancer.
A root-cause analysis of this case identified multiple system failures, focused mainly on a lack of communication between providers:
- The description of the lesion and of the patient’s history were not included with the initial biopsy requisition form due to a lack of communication between the nurse and the physician performing the procedure.
- The dermatopathologist did not seek additional clinical information from the referring physician after receiving the sample.
- When the various providers did communicate, an accurate diagnosis was reached—but only after extensive investigation (and worry).
Communication is key to an accurate diagnosis
In 2000, it was estimated that health care costs due to preventable adverse events represent more than half of the $37.6 billion spent on health care.1 Since then, considerable effort has been made to address patient safety, misdiagnosis, and cost-effectiveness. Root cause analysis is one of the most popular methods used to evaluate and prevent future serious adverse events.2
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