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Delayed diagnosis

Post date: 16/04/2018 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 14/11/2018

Mrs F, a 30-year-old housewife, visited her GP, Dr O, with a four-week history of diarrhoea. Dr O arranged a stool sample for microscopy and culture (which was negative) and prescribed codeine. Four months later, Mrs F was still having diarrhoea, especially after meals, and she had started to notice some weight loss. She returned to the surgery and this time saw Dr P, who examined her and found nothing remarkable, but decided to refer her to gastroenterology in view of her persistent symptoms. 

Mrs F was seen four months later by the outpatient gastroenterology team, who attributed her symptoms to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). She underwent a sigmoidoscopy which revealed no changes, and was diagnosed with functional bowel disease.

Four years later, Mrs F developed difficulty passing stools after the birth of her second child. She was referred to the colorectal team and underwent a further sigmoidoscopy, which revealed no abnormalities. She was referred for pelvic floor physiotherapy.

Two years later, Mrs F returned to her GP and consulted Dr G with the sensation of a lump in her rectum preventing her from defecating. She reported incomplete bowel emptying and the need to manually evacuate. She was referred back to the colorectal surgeons, who arranged a barium enema, which was reported as normal.

Three months later, Mrs F visited the practice again with a two-week history of diarrhoea and abdominal cramps. Dr B saw her on this occasion and diagnosed her with possible gastroenteritis. He arranged a stool culture, coeliac screen and routine bloods.

Mrs F returned a week later for follow-up with Dr Y, reporting ongoing diarrhoea with no rectal bleeding. Dr Y noted the recent normal barium enema and sigmoidoscopy and normal stool culture. The blood tests remained pending so Dr Y sent Mrs F to hospital to get them done. The results for the coeliac screen were normal.

Another three months later, Mrs F was still symptomatic and attended Dr P with diarrhoea and bloating. No abnormalities were found on abdominal and PR examination. Dr P diagnosed IBS and prescribed amitriptyline. 

Over the next three weeks, frustrated at the lack of resolution of her symptoms, Mrs F had several GP appointments with Dr G, Dr P, Dr O, Dr B and Dr Y. She was referred for a colonoscopy and pelvic ultrasound – all of which were normal. She was re-referred to the colorectal surgeons and a family history of pancreatic insufficiency was discussed during the outpatient appointment. Faecal elastase confirmed pancreatic insufficiency and a CT of her abdomen revealed obstructing pancreatic duct calculi. She underwent ERCP and a Frey’s procedure, which failed to resolve her symptoms and, at the time of the claim, Mrs F was considering a total pancreatectomy.

A claim was brought against Dr P, Dr Y and Dr O, for failing to take into account Mrs F’s family history of chronic pancreatitis and arranging a specialist referral and follow-up investigations.

Expert Opinion
On the basis of the medical records and the evidence provided by the doctors involved, the GP expert was supportive of Dr P, Dr Y and Dr O. Given that Mrs F did not mention her family history of chronic pancreatitis, there was no reason to suspect pancreatic insufficiency as a cause for her symptoms. The claim subsequently discontinued.  

Learning Points
  • Where patients are repeat attenders with ongoing symptoms, it is important to consider alternative causes for their symptoms. 
  • Careful documentation of consultations is imperative and greatly assists when defending claims. 
  • Where patients are repeat attenders, it is important to consider all past consultations, particularly if patients do not see the same practitioner each time, to ensure that continuity of care is not impacted.

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