The Case: After deliberating only three hours, a Penobscot County jury rendered a $1.8 million verdict in favor of a Millinocket couple in a case involving the failure to communicate lab test results. The jury found that all parties to the case, including the patient, breached their standards of care.
The Facts: John Pierce sued his physician and the hospital that performed the blood tests, which occurred when he visited the emergency room with complaints of recurring fever, shortness of breath and lack of energy. The test results showed he had a streptococcal infection, but the hospital failed to communicate them to his treating physician.
The evidence showed that a hospital nurse did call Mr. Pierce with the results and told him to return to the hospital, which he did not do, although he did return to his physician a few days later. The progress notes from that visit showed that he stated the test results were negative. Mr. Pierce testified that he did not remember the content of his conversation with the nurse, nor did he remember what he said to his doctor. Treatment was delayed for several months until the patient underwent emergency heart surgery for damage to his heart valves.
How the Lawyers Saw It: The plaintiffs’ attorney characterized the underlying facts as being, “about a problem in health care that affects everyone, the lack of communication between providers, with results that can be catastrophic.” Attorney Ben Gideon went on to say that in this case there was a break in trust between the patient and the doctor and hospital involved. Because the jury also found that the patient was partially at fault, it reduced the award from the original $2.1 million amount.
The hospital’s attorney, James Martemucci, admitted to the jury that his client had made an error in failing to send the test results to the patient’s doctor. The hospital has changed its practice and now duplicates its communications, both sending the test results to the physician and calling the physician to report the results.
The physician’s lawyer stressed the role of communication in this case. “Inaccurate communication got everything steered down the wrong path,” said Mark Lavoie. “If you rely on a patient to accurately communicate test results, you do so at your peril.
Important Lesson: This case illustrates the importance of communication, both in the physician-patient relationship and in the relationship between the physician and other members of the treatment team such as hospital emergency departments, nurses and labs. It also shows that communicating results to a patient may not be enough, since a patient may be too sick to remember or pass on the results or may simply fail to do so. According to research reported in the November Journal of the American College of Radiology, cases involving a failure to communicate test results accounted for 2.31% of cases (and $91 million in payments) in the National Practitioner Data Bank in the year 2009.