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Unforeseeable complications?

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
Mr M, a 45-year-old lawyer with a substantial income, consulted Dr L, an ophthalmologist, for the management of deteriorating keratoconus. He had become intolerant of contact lenses and was experiencing visual difficulties. His right eye had a corneal scar secondary to severe keratoconus, and he had keratoconus forme fruste in his left eye. Visual acuity was 6/20 in the right eye and 6/12 in the left eye.

Dr L offered Mr M corneal graft surgery in order to improve his symptom of deteriorating vision. He was counselled regarding complications, specifically that eye infections were a possibility, but he was not told about the rare risk of loss of the eye. Dr L performed uncomplicated corneal graft surgery on the right eye, and before discharging Mr M, provided him with his mobile phone number and a postoperative information leaflet, which informed patients that they should contact him immediately if they experienced any pain or poor vision.

Written records show that Dr L reviewed Mr M on the first day post-surgery. He was satisfied with the eye and prescribed a topical corticosteroid and a topical antibiotic. On the morning of the second day following the surgery, written and telephonic records show that Dr L gave Mr M a courtesy call and that Mr M did not inform Dr L of any pain during this conversation. Twenty-four hours later, Mr M called Dr L and complained of severe, worsening pain in the right eye, that started shortly after Dr L’s phone call the previous day. Dr L saw Mr M immediately and observed a fulminant endophthalmitis.

Mr M was referred to Dr G, a vitreo-retinal surgeon, who arranged immediate treatment with intra-vitreal and systemic antibiotics. A posterior vitrectomy and lensectomy were performed, but B-scan ultrasonography later showed a retinal detachment. Bacterial culture of the vitreous revealed a serratia marcescens infection, sensitive to the antibiotics being used. As a result of the retinal detachment Mr M lost all vision in the right eye. His corrected visual acuity in the left eye was 6/36.

Mr M made a claim against Dr L, alleging that he had failed to inform him of the risks of corneal graft surgery or of the significance of pain postoperatively. He further alleged inadequate postoperative care, which led to Mr M developing an uncontrolled infection and subsequent blindness in that eye.

Expert opinion

Medical Protection sought expert opinion from an ophthalmologist. She was supportive of the care provided by Dr L and concluded that the postoperative patient information leaflet had sufficient information about warning signs. She also noted that Dr L did warn that eye infections were a possible complication and opined that loss of vision due to an infection was such a rare complication that the patient did not need to be warned specifically about the risk.

The expert made the additional point that, in Mr M’s case, there was a real risk that the natural course of the disease may have led to blindness through the complications of keratoconus itself, in the long term.

The case was considered to be defensible and was taken to trial. The court was satisfied that Dr L’s management was appropriate and that there was no evidence of a failure to provide adequate informed consent or negligent after care. Judgment was made in favour of Dr L.

Learning points

  • Doctors must now ensure that patients are aware of any “material risks” involved in a proposed treatment, and of reasonable alternatives, following the judgment in the Montgomery case in 2015. GMC guidance1 also recommends that serious adverse events (such as irreversible loss of sight) must be discussed even if they are rare. 
  • When providing important information in a written format, the patient must be made aware of its importance. Consider providing verbal information as well as written information for important matters. When giving written information to sightimpaired patients, the format and font should be suitable for their visual ability. When applicable, consider adjunctive methods to deliver information such as audio or video formats.
  • Although the primary purpose of medical records is to ensure continuity of patient care, medical records are used as evidence of care when dealing with complaints and medicolegal claims. Therefore, clear and detailed medical records are in both the patient’s and the doctor’s best interest. 

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