Medicolegal Issues

Home pregnancy tests—Is ectopic always on your mind?

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When a patient presents to the ED reporting early pregnancy and intermittent vaginal bleeding, failure to evaluate for ectopic pregnancy can expose clinicians to liability



CASE Unidentified ectopic pregnancy leads to rupture*

A 33-year-old woman (G1 P0010) with 2 positive home pregnancy tests presents to the emergency department (ED) reporting intermittent vaginal bleeding for 3 days. Her last menstrual period was 10 weeks ago, but she reports that her menses are always irregular. She has a history of asymptomatic chlamydia, as well as spontaneous abortion 2 years prior. At present, she denies abdominal pain or vaginal discharge.

Upon examination her vital signs are: temperature, 98.3 °F; pulse, 112 bpm, with a resting rate of 16 bpm; blood pressure (BP), 142/91 mm Hg; pulse O2, 99%; height, 4’ 3”; weight, 115 lb. Her labs are: hemoglobin, 12.1 g/dL; hematocrit, 38%; serum human chorionic gonadotropin (hCG) 236 mIU/mL. Upon pelvic examination, no active bleeding is noted. She agrees to be followed up by her gynecologist and is given a prescription for serum hCG in 2 days. She is instructed to return to the ED should she have pain or increased vaginal bleeding.

Three days later, the patient follows up with her gynecologist reporting mild cramping. She notes having had an episode of heavy vaginal bleeding and a “weakly positive” home pregnancy test. Transvaginal ultrasonography notes endometrial thickness 0.59 mm and unremarkable adnexa. A urine pregnancy test performed in the office is positive; urinalysis is positive for nitrites. With the bleeding slowed, the gynecologist’s overall impression is that the patient has undergone complete spontaneous abortion. She prescribes Macrobid for the urinary tract infection. She does not obtain the ED-prescribed serum HCG levels, as she feels, since complete spontaneous abortion has occurred there is no need to obtain a follow-up serum HCG.

Five days later, the patient returns to the ED reporting abdominal pain after eating. Fever and productive cough of 2 days are noted. The patient states that she had a recent miscarriage. The overall impression of the patient’s condition is bronchitis, and it is noted on the patient’s record, “unlikely ectopic pregnancy and pregnancy test may be false positive,” hence a pregnancy test is not ordered. Examination reveals mild suprapubic tenderness with no rebound; no pelvic exam is performed. The patient is instructed to follow up with a health care clinic within a week, and to return to the ED with severe abdominal pain, higher fever, or any new concerning symptoms. A Zithromax Z-pak is prescribed.

Four days later, the patient is brought by ambulance to the ED of the local major medical center with severe abdominal pain involving the right lower quadrant. She states that she had a miscarriage 3 weeks prior and was recently treated for bronchitis. She has dizziness when standing. Her vital signs are: temperature, 97.8 °F; heart rate, 95 bpm; BP, 72/48 mm Hg; pulse O2, 100%. She reports her abdominal pain to be 6/10.

The patient is given a Lactated Ringer’s bolus of 1,000 mL for a hypotensive episode. Computed tomography is obtained and notes, “low attenuation in the left adnexa with a dilated fallopian tube.” A large heterogeneous collection of fluid in the pelvis is noted with active extravasation, consistent with an “acute bleed.”

The patient is brought to the operating room with a diagnosis of probable ruptured ectopic pregnancy. Intraoperatively she is noted to have a right ruptured ectopic and left tubo-ovarian abscess. The surgeon proceeds with right salpingectomy and left salpingo-oophorectomy. Three liters of hemoperitoneum is found.

She is followed postoperatively with serum hCG until levels are negative. Her postoperative course is uneventful. Her only future option for pregnancy is through assisted reproductive technology (ART) with in vitro fertilization (IVF). The patient sues the gynecologist and second ED physician for presumed inappropriate assessment for ectopic pregnancy.

*The “facts” of this case are a composite, drawn from several cases to illustrate medical and legal issues. The statement of facts should be considered hypothetical.

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