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The Swiss cheese

01 May 2014

Mrs X gave birth to J, a healthy baby boy. J was discharged, with a note in the records stating he was a “normal healthy infant”; a further note stated that, on examination, there was a bilateral red reflex.

At four weeks, the health visitor’s notes showed that J’s parents were concerned that J’s left eye was smaller than the right, and the health visitor referred the baby to a community paediatrician. A couple of weeks later, the health visitor documented the left eye as being more open and the referral was cancelled.

J was then seen by the family’s GP, Dr A, for a six-week check-up; his vision and hearing were recorded as being “satisfactory”. At three months, Dr A referred J to the ophthalmology department after noticing a squint in his left eye; the left pupil was also smaller than the right pupil. Six weeks later – before the ophthalmology consultation took place – J was admitted to hospital as an emergency via Dr A, with coryza, vomiting and poor feeding. J was transferred to the paediatric department, but there was no record from this admission of any examination of J’s eyes.

At six months, J’s ophthalmology appointment took place. He saw a consultant ophthalmologist, Dr H, who noted that she could not detect any visual acuity in the left eye and that the eye was microphthalmic. She also noted a central cataract on the left side. J eventually became blind in his left eye.

His parents made a claim against Dr A and the hospital for the delay in the diagnosis of the congenital cataract.

Expert opinion

Expert GP opinion on breach of duty stated that Dr A had not been diligent when initially examining J’s eyes at the time of the six-week check. By that time the health visitor had listed initial concerns about the size of the eyes, which should have prompted Dr A to be meticulous in his examination of the eyes; had the red reflex been absent, referral to a specialist should have occurred immediately. Prompt and appropriate referral would have led to a 20% chance of restoring J’s visual acuity to a level adequate for driving.

Another expert report, provided by a consultant ophthalmologist, also stated this examination was inadequate, as an abnormal red reflex would almost certainly have been present; this would have allowed for appropriate surgical intervention of the cataract that was later diagnosed.

This report also criticised the hospital paediatric department for failing to communicate the concerns in J’s records about his eye size to the appropriate colleagues. The case was settled for a substantial sum.

Learning points

  • Poor communication leads to poor treatment. Here there is poor communication at various stages, between GP and hospital and within the hospital itself.
  • Congenital cataract has a finite time period in which surgical intervention is beneficial.
  • J was not seen by a consultant ophthalmologist until he was six months old; this delay highlights failings at both ends. Dr A’s referral letter did not make the urgency of the appointment clear but, also, the recognised association of microphthalmia with congenital cataract should have prompted the consultant reading the letter to offer an urgent outpatient appointment.