CASE Surgeon accused of operating outside her scope of expertise
A 38-year-old woman (G2 P2002) presented to the emergency department (ED) with acute pelvic pain involving the right lower quadrant (RLQ). The patient had a history of stage IV endometriosis and chronic pelvic pain, primarily affecting the RLQ, that was treated by total laparoscopic hysterectomy with bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy 6 months earlier. Pertinent findings on physical examination included hypoactive bowel sounds and rebound tenderness. The ED physician ordered a computed tomography (CT) scan of the abdomen, which showed no evidence of ureteral injury or other abnormality. The gynecologist who performed the surgery 6 months ago evaluated the patient in the ED.
The gynecologist decided to perform operative laparoscopy because of the severity of the patient’s pain and duration of symptoms. Informed consent obtained in the ED before the patient received analgesics included a handwritten note that said “and other indicated procedures.” The patient signed the document prior to being taken to the operating room (OR). Time out occurred in the OR before anesthesia induction. The gynecologist proceeded with laparoscopic adhesiolysis with planned appendectomy, as she was trained. A normal appendix was noted and left intact. RLQ adhesions involving the colon and abdominal wall were treated with electrosurgical cautery. When the gynecologist found adhesions between the liver and diaphragm in the right upper quadrant (RUQ), she continued adhesiolysis. However, the diaphragm was inadvertently punctured.
As the gynecologist attempted to suture the defect laparoscopically, she encountered difficulty and converted to laparotomy. Adhesions were dense and initially precluded adequate closure of the diaphragmatic defect. The gynecologist persisted and ultimately the closure was adequate; laparotomy concluded. Postoperatively, the patient was given a diagnosis of atelectasis, primarily on the right side; a chest tube was placed by the general surgery team. The patient had an uneventful postoperative period and was discharged on postoperative day 5. One month later she returned to the ED with evidence of pneumonia; she was given a diagnosis of empyema, and antibiotics were administered. She responded well and was discharged after 6 days.
The patient filed a malpractice lawsuit against the gynecologist, the hospital, and associated practitioners. The suit made 3 negligence claims: 1) the surgery was improperly performed, as evidenced by the diaphragmatic perforation; 2) the gynecologist was not adequately trained for RUQ surgery, and 3) the hospital should not have permitted RUQ surgery to proceed. The liability claim cited the lack of qualification of a gynecologic surgeon to proceed with surgical intervention near the diaphragm and the associated consequences of practicing outside the scope of expertise.
Fitz-Hugh Curtis syndrome, a complication of pelvic inflammatory disease that may cause adhesions, was raised as the initial finding at the second surgical procedure and documented as such in the operative report. The plaintiff’s counsel questioned whether surgical correction of this syndrome was within the realm of a gynecologic surgeon. The plaintiff’s counsel argued that the laparoscopic surgical procedure involved bowel and liver; diaphragmatic adhesiolysis was not indicated, especially with normal abdominal CT scan results and the absence of RUQ symptoms. The claim specified that the surgery and care, as a consequence of the RUQ adhesiolysis, resulted in atelectasis, pneumonia, and empyema, with pain and suffering. The plaintiff sought unspecified monetary damages for these results.
What’s the verdict?
The case is in negotiation prior to trial.
Legal and medical considerations
“To err is not just human but intrinsically biological and no profession is exempt from fallibility.”1
Error and liability
To err may be human, but human error is not necessarily the cause of every suboptimal medical outcome. In fact, the overall surgical complication rate has been reported at 3.4%.2 Even when there is an error, it may not have been the kind of error that gives rise to medical malpractice liability. When it comes to surgical errors, the most common are those that actually relate to medications given at surgery that appear to be more common—one recent study found that 1 in 20 perioperative medication administrations resulted in a medication error or an adverse drug event.3
Medical error vs medical malpractice
The fact is that medical error and medical malpractice (or professional negligence) are not the same thing. It is critical to understand the difference.
Medical error is the third leading cause of death in the United States.4 It is defined as “the failure of a planned action to be completed as intended or the use of a wrong plan to achieve an aim,”5 or, in the Canadian literature, “an act of omission or commission in planning or execution that contributes or could contribute to an unintended result.”6 The gamut of medical errors spans (among others) problems with technique, judgment, medication administration, diagnostic and surgical errors, and incomplete record keeping.5