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A failure to monitor

01 May 2013

Retired engineer Mr S, 77, went to see his GP, Dr J, with symptoms of dizziness. He had returned from a pacemaker check at the hospital that morning and while travelling home on the train he had started to feel off-balance. He managed to get an emergency appointment to see Dr J, by which time the symptoms were resolving.

Dr J noted that the pacemaker had been fitted for complete heart block six years ago, and had remained in situ without any problems since then. Mr S reported no chest pain or palpitations and Dr J, feeling reassured by the recent pacemaker check and a normal examination, attributed the symptoms to motion sickness and prescribed cinnarizine.

Despite taking the medication regularly, Mr S’s dizziness continued, so he returned to the practice two days later to see Dr A, his usual GP. Dr A recorded his BP as 140/50 and attributed the symptoms to benign paroxysmal positional vertigo. No record was made of Mr S’s pulse. Dr A advised Mr S to continue the medication prescribed by Dr J.

During the next six weeks, Mr S consulted with Dr A on three further occasions with ongoing symptoms of intermittent dizziness. Note-keeping from all three consultations was sparse, with no defined cause of the symptoms documented, and no further cardiovascular examination or ECG performed. Mr S was given a trial of betahistine for presumed Meniere’s disease.

Two months after his initial presentation, Mr S was taken into the Emergency Department after collapsing on the street when out shopping. He was found to be in complete heart block, with a pulse rate of 32 beats per minute. The admission ECG showed atrial pacing but no ventricular spikes, and his symptoms were attributed to a malfunctioning pacemaker.

He was admitted to hospital, and while being monitored on telemetry, the pacemaker activity resumed without intervention. Mr S became acutely confused after admission to the ward. He was treated for a urinary tract infection, and underwent a full confusion screen, which was unremarkable.

A CT scan of his brain showed small vessel disease. The patient continued to deteriorate, leading to him becoming fully dependant. He was discharged into a care home following a prolonged admission.

Mr S’s family made a claim against Dr A, stating that the confusion and memory loss developed as a result of hypoxia, linked to the malfunctioning pacemaker. Experts agreed that a competent GP would rethink the diagnosis of vertigo and carry out a cardiovascular examination, including an ECG.

Dr A defended his actions by stating that by taking a manual blood pressure reading, he would have listened to the pulse and been aware of any significant irregularity or abnormal rate. However, opinion was divided on the causation of Mr S’s decline.

Experts found no evidence to support an episode of circulatory failure significant enough to cause prolonged hypoxic damage. The general deterioration was considered to be due to a preexisting cognitive impairment, which was exacerbated by the hospital environment and the bradycardia – which experts agreed, would have occurred in any event with an earlier hospital admission.

The case was settled for a low sum to reflect the partial causation defence.

Learning points

  • Lack of clear documentation makes a case difficult to defend. In this scenario, there was no record in the notes that the patient’s pulse had been taken. If an investigation is not written down, it is hard to prove that it took place.
  • The allegation in this instance was of memory loss as a result of hypoxia. Ultimately, the deterioration of the patient was attributed to pre-existing cognitive impairment, hence the low settlement. From a medicolegal standpoint, this highlights the importance of fully investigating claims, since taking the claim at face value may have resulted in payment of long-term care costs.
  • Be wary of repeat consultations. Dizziness is common, but revisiting a diagnosis and carrying out a basic examination, especially in a patient with a cardiac history, is essential to ensure that good quality care is provided.
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