Yesterday’s USA Today ran a story about the often preventable tragedy of undiagnosed heart attacks. It told the story of James Pettry, who woke early one morning short of breath and sweating profusely. His wife dialed 911. The paramedics gave Mr. Pettry oxygen and aspirin and then used an electrocardiogram machine to examine the heart’s electrical function. They believed he was having a heart attack and took him 3 miles to the hospital. The emergency room doctor disagreed. The doctor ran some tests and sent Mr. Pettry home nearly five hours later with a diagnosis of anxiety, saying Pettry just had anxiety.
We all know where this story is going. Mr. Pettry died the next day, joining the list of thousands every year who die every year when their heart attacks are undetected by doctors. In fact, researchers from New England Medical Center in Boston reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2000 that one in 50 heart attack victims are mistakenly sent home by emergency room doctors. Other studies have documented higher rates of missed heart attack diagnosis.
The defendant says that his patient died from chronic heart disease that had no connection to the symptoms that landed him in the ER.
In this case, who knows? We don’t have access to all of the evidence so it is possible that this emergency room doctor did not miss a myocardial infarction. But regardless of the regrettable facts in this particular case, there is no question that more can be done to prevent the thousands of misdiagnosed cases in the United States each year, according to Joseph Ornato, Professor and Chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center in Richmond, who has researched the emergency care of heart attacks. “Even in the best of hands, you can easily miss cases. This is a very perilous area.”
Juries agree. A missed heart attack diagnosis brings high medical malpractice payouts. The vast majority of malpractice settlements for heart attacks come from errors in diagnosis, according to data from Jury Verdict Research, which tracks and analyzes nationwide trends in personal-injury litigation. Over the past decade, the median jury verdict for heart attack malpractice lawsuits was $941,000. The lowest was an Oklahoma judgment for $81,000 in 1996, and the highest, $9 million, came in an Illinois case in 1997.