Miss A, a 30-year-old teacher, saw Dr W, a consultant psychiatrist, in the outpatient clinic. Dr W noted Miss A’s diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder, her previous hospital admission for depression and her history of a significant overdose of antidepressant medication. Dr W found Miss A to be severely depressed with psychotic symptoms. Miss A reported thoughts of taking a further overdose and Dr W arranged her admission informally to hospital.
During Miss A’s admission Dr W stopped her antidepressant medication, allowing a wash-out period before commencing a new antidepressant and titrating up the dose. He increased Miss A’s antipsychotic medication and recommended she be placed on close observations due to continued expression of suicidal ideation. He documented that Miss A appeared guarded and perplexed, did not interact with staff or other patients on the ward, and spent long periods in her nightwear, lying on her bed. He did not document the content of her suicidal thoughts. Dr W reiterated to nursing staff that close observations should continue.
During the third week of her admission, Miss A asked to go home. Miss A’s named nurse left Miss A alone to contact the team doctor to ask whether Miss A required assessment. While alone in her room, Miss A set fire to her night clothes with a cigarette lighter and sustained burns to her neck, chest and abdomen. She was transferred to the A&E department and then to the plastic surgical team. She remained an inpatient on the burns unit for three months, requiring skin grafts to 20% of her body.
Miss A made a good recovery from this incident and subsequently brought a claim against Dr W and the hospital. She alleged Dr W had failed to prescribe adequate doses of medication to ensure the optimal level of improvement in her mental health symptoms, failed to adequately assess the level of risk she posed, and failed to ensure constant specialist nursing care was provided to supervise her adequately during her hospital stay. She also alleged the hospital had failed to ensure she did not have access to a cigarette lighter. Miss A claimed that she would not have suffered the severe burns and subsequent post-traumatic stress disorder if not for these failings.
An expert opinion was sought from a psychiatrist. The expert made no criticism of the medication regime or changes to it, but was critical of the communication between Dr W and nursing staff over the meaning of the words “close observation”, and the lack of a policy setting this out. She was also of the view that additional nursing staff should have been requested to ensure one-to-one nursing of the patient during her admission. She was critical of the hospital for allowing the patient access to a lighter on the ward, and concluded that the incident could have been avoided if these failures had not occurred.
Dr W acknowledged Miss A had been the most unwell patient on the ward at the time and in hindsight agreed that additional nursing staff should have been requested. Dr W highlighted that there was pressure on consultants not to request additional nursing staff due to cost implications. He also acknowledged that by “close observations” he had expected the patient to be within sight of a member of nursing staff at all times but had not ever communicated this specifically to the ward staff.
The claim was settled for a substantial sum, with the hospital contributing to the settlement.
- Mental health units should have clear policies regarding observation levels and all staff should be aware of these. The observation level deemed appropriate for each patient should be clearly discussed with ward staff and documented within the notes, both on admission and whenever changes are made. The justification for any changes in the level of observation should be clearly documented.
- Robust risk assessment is always important. Risk assessment tools are available, and you should be familiar with any relevant local policies regarding these. Decisions made about the risk posed by a patient to themselves or others should be clearly documented and communicated.
- Mental health units should also have policies surrounding the requirement to check patient’s belongings when they are admitted and for removing any items that may pose a risk, including lighters and any sharp implements.
- If a lack of resources results in concerns regarding patient safety, these should be raised by the clinician involved, following guidance set out by the GMC in Raising and Acting on Concerns About Patient Safety.