Mr F, a 33-year-old policeman, attended his GP, Dr B, with a six-month history of abdominal pain and rectal bleeding. The abdominal pain had become more constant over the preceding few weeks and laxatives reportedly eased the pain; the pain had eased on the day of the consultation. The blood was bright red in the toilet bowl and on the stool and paper, there was no mucous in the stool and no family history of cancer. Dr B documented no weight loss or joint pains. A telephone consultation earlier the same day, with another GP, had referred to Mr F “straining” to pass his stool.
The examination revealed a soft abdomen with slight lower abdominal tenderness. There were no masses and no organomegaly, and a rectal examination revealed an empty rectum with no masses.
Given the age of the patient and the description of the blood, Dr B felt this was most likely haemorrhoids secondary to constipation, which was being eased by the laxatives. He advised further laxatives, blood tests to look for inflammatory bowel disease and for Mr F to return in four weeks, if no better.
Mr F did not attend for blood tests nor did he return to see Dr B. One year later he was admitted to hospital and diagnosed with metastatic colorectal cancer, from which he died within a year.
A claim was made against Dr B by Mr F’s family, alleging he was negligent in diagnosing haemorrhoids when these were not visualised, instead of referring to secondary care for further assessment. It was alleged that these failures resulted in a 12-month delay in diagnosis and a nine-month reduction in life expectancy.
A GP expert considered that the history of straining with fresh red blood on defecation would be consistent with a diagnosis of haemorrhoids. The recorded history in the records was felt to be detailed enough to support Dr B and his logical reasoning that constipation was the most likely cause of the abdominal pain, the improvement with laxatives and the straining to pass stool. The blood tests and safety netting were also considered appropriate and it was felt there was no breach of duty. In addition, the expert was supportive of the diagnosis of haemorrhoids in the absence of visualisation, noting that haemorrhoids are frequently not palpated but diagnosed following a history consistent with them that lacks features suggesting something more sinister.
An expert oncologist instructed in the case did not support the claim that Mr F would have survived for a further nine months had the tumour been diagnosed earlier.
Medical Protection served a robust response denying both breach of duty and causation and the claim was discontinued against Dr B.
- Record-keeping was the most important aspect in defending this case. Important positive findings and relevant negatives should be recorded to enable a clear logical reasoning to be followed.
- Rectal examination should always be performed in patients presenting with rectal bleeding. When a patient declines this examination, it should be clearly documented that they are aware of the implications this could have on diagnosis.
- Although uncommon, malignancy can be a cause of rectal bleeding in younger patient groups.