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Tragic outcomes don't always equal negligence

Post date: 26/10/2017 | Time to read article: 3 mins

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

Written by a Senior Professional
JS, a four-month-old baby, was felt by his mother to be developing a cold and was given oral paracetamol solution, which was effective. The following day his mother noted he was warm and snuffly. His breathing was laboured and he was making moaning noises. He was not feeding well, although he was taking some milk. He apparently had a rash on his back. JS was given oral paracetamol solution but it now had no effect and as his condition was worsening an appointment was made for him to be seen by the GP.

Dr D reviewed the baby at around 2-3pm that day, stating in his notes that the baby had been unwell and tachypnoeic since the morning, but drinking. The examination findings that Dr D recorded were that the baby felt hot, was alert, had a soft fontanelle and equal and reactive pupils. No abnormality was recorded on examination of the throat, ears, chest and abdomen and there was no photophobia or neck stiffness. A diagnosis of a virus was made and regular oral paracetamol solution recommended, with advice to return if JS did not improve.

Dr D stated that if he had confirmed an abnormally high respiration rate when examining the baby he would have noted it. He was confident he was not told of or shown any rash, and would have noted any history or examination findings in relation to it.

The mother stated that when JS did not improve she sent her other son (aged 11- years-old) to explain that she was concerned that the oral paracetamol solution was not working. This was about 5:30pm. The son apparently spoke to the receptionist who advised that “the oral paracetamol solution needed time to work”. No doctor was spoken to although the receptionists that were working at the time stated that they did not recall the son attending or providing such advice.

JS is said to have remained unwell during the evening and the mother awoke at 6:30am the following day to find that JS had developed large purple spots. She contacted the doctor. Dr W, who was on call for the practice, arrived at about 8am. On arrival it was immediately apparent to him that the baby was very unwell as he was very drowsy, greyish in colour and also exhibiting a purpuric rash. He immediately took the child to hospital in his car and stated that he administered an intramuscular injection of benzylpenicillin.

Meningococcal septicaemia was diagnosed and following treatment JS was found to be profoundly brain damaged. He was later diagnosed with severe microcephaly, cognitive impairment, poor vision and intractable epilepsy.

His mother brought a claim alleging that Dr D failed to take an adequate history and perform an adequate examination, give adequate consideration to the age of the child and the risk of rapid deterioration in his condition, failed to observe and act in the presence of a rash and to consider diagnoses other than a viral infection and failed to refer the baby to hospital. It was also alleged that the practice reception staff failed to seek medical advice and that they provided inappropriate advice to the 11-year-old son about treatment with oral paracetamol solution.

Expert opinion

Medical Protection sought expert opinion from a GP, a paediatric neurologist, a paediatric infectious diseases specialist and a medical microbiologist. The expert GP’s opinion on breach of duty stated that if the mother’s account of the consultation with Dr D was accepted, the standard of care was unreasonable. However, on the basis of the records and witness statement, and having seen the member in conference, the expert was satisfied that the doctor’s actions were reasonable. The paediatric infectious diseases expert report on causation indicated that if the baby had been admitted by Dr D and treated in hospital with intravenous antibiotics immediately, his opinion was that JS would have made a full recovery.

On the basis of the supportive expert GP report Medical Protection opted to defend the case at trial. The claimant discontinued three days into the trial.

Learning points

  • Good clinical records are essential for the resolution of factual disputes.
  • Non-clinical staff (such as receptionists) should not provide clinical advice and GMC guidance on delegation and referral states (in paragraph 4) that “when delegating care you must be satisfied that the person to whom you delegate has the knowledge, skills and experience to provide the relevant care or treatment; or that the person will be adequately supervised”.
  • Although the outcome was tragic, this does not always equal negligence.
  • Parents should be advised on the signs to look for and when to seek further help, and this should be documented.

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