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Oh by the way, doctor

01 May 2012

Mrs R was a receptionist in a local estate agent’s office. One evening, she noticed that her 11-year-old son, Y, was limping as he walked towards her in the kitchen. Y was overweight and had been grumbling to his mother about his left knee hurting intermittently for the previous month.

On this occasion, when she asked why he was limping, Y told his mother he had slipped on ice in the playground earlier in the day. The fall had caused his leg to be sore. He had pointed at his thigh and said his knee was hurting again. The following day, Mrs R was booked to visit her GP, Dr G, to review her contraceptive medication. She decided to bring her son along with her, without an appointment.

At the end of her consultation, Mrs R asked the doctor if he would take a look at her son. She explained what had happened yesterday and told Dr G that Y had been limping at home. There was a computer record of the consultation with Mrs R, but not with Y. Mrs R reported that Dr G carried out a cursory examination of Y, while Y was sitting in the chair. She said that the doctor told them this was most likely a hip sprain, but to come back if the pain did not settle.

Dr G remembered Mrs R attending for a review of her medication, and then asking for her son to be seen at the same time. He recalled feeling rushed and that Mrs R was quite insistent that Y be examined. Dr G could not remember carrying out the examination and thought he had asked Mrs R to rebook an appointment for Y. As there was no formal record of this, there was therefore no note of such a request, or an examination being performed.

When they returned home, the boy continued to complain of pain in his leg. Mrs R decided to bring Y to the local Emergency Department (ED) three weeks later, where a doctor requested bilateral hip x-rays and subsequently diagnosed slipped upper femoral epiphysis (SUFE). The case was discussed with the orthopaedic team on call and Y was admitted immediately for internal fixation.

After his treatment, Y’s legs were of unequal length and one year later, he still walked with a persistent limp, which he found extremely distressing. The family had learnt it was likely that Y would require an early hip replacement in the future.

Mrs R made a claim against Dr G. As there were no records of the consultation, experts found it difficult to make a definitive assessment of the case, but they did find that Dr G’s management had not been appropriate. The case was settled for a high sum.

Learning points

  • Remember the importance of contemporaneous record-keeping. Good documentation is the basis of good medical practice, and can help to defend a claim. Even if Y’s problem was mentioned by Mrs R as a “by-the-by”, Dr G should have made a clinical record of the events.
  • If you are going to assess a patient, even in someone else’s appointment, the history and examination should be carried out appropriately. Had Dr G done it at the time, he may have realised that there was a significant problem with the child’s leg. Otherwise, Dr G should have asked Mrs R to wait until the end of surgery for Y to be seen if urgent, or rebook an appointment for Y at a later date, when a more thorough history and examination could be carried out, if the problem could wait. Dr G should have made a record of this discussion.
  • A limp in a child can have multiple aetiologies: Perthes’ disease/trauma/transient synovitis/septic arthritis/osteomeylitis. Slipped upper femoral epiphysis usually affects boys aged 10-15 years old. Incidence is 1:100,000 and is bilateral in 20% of cases. It occurs more frequently in obese children with delayed secondary sexual development and tall thin boys.
  • Remember referred pain to the knee as an early clinical symptom of SUFE.
  • Examine both hips and check for restricted movement, particularly internal rotation.

Further information

  • Lalanda M, A Limping Child, Casebook 15(2)
  • Lalanda M, Alonso JA, Improving the Management of the Child with an Unexplained Limp, Clinical Governance: An International Journal 11(4) 308–15 (2006)
  • Anthony S, Getting to Grips with Children’s Hips, Casebook 12(3)
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